Stephen Forte, Smith Gambrell and Russell, Atlanta. (Handout Photo)
As large U.S. firms jockey to stake out a global presence, Smith Gambrell & Russell is expanding its reach with new international offices in the United Kingdom and Germany. The Atlanta-based Am Law 200 firm is also adding seven lawyers to its New York office with the impending acquisition of New York boutique Balber Pickard Maldonado & Van Der Tuin.
“Having a platform beyond being a big Atlanta law firm is important for us for the growth and future of our firm,” said Smith Gambrell’s managing partner, Stephen Forte. “We’ve already charted that course. Now we’re acting in furtherance of it.”
The firm added London and Southhampton offices to expand its marquee aviation finance practice beyond the United States and a Munich office to support its long-standing practice serving German companies for inbound transactional work.
“These jurisdictions really have a connection to what we do for clients—and what we want to do more of for clients,” said Forte, adding that the firm was “not just throwing darts at a map.”
The roughly 200-lawyer firm grossed $93.1 million in 2015, placing it at No. 194 in the Am Law 200 ranking, with average profit per partner of $620,000.
Smith Gambrell recruited three aviation finance practitioners from U.K. firm Blake Morgan. Partner Ben Graham-Evans, who headed the aviation group at Blake Morgan, opened a London office for the firm, while partner Mark Turnbull has opened a Southhampton office with associate Gareth Hawes.
With the Blake Morgan lawyers, Smith Gambrell has about 15 aviation law practitioners in Atlanta, New York and, now, the U.K. Forte said the U.K. provides the “third leg of the stool,” for the practice outside Atlanta, explaining that in the United States, New York is the center for this work, while London is the hub overseas.
“It gives us the coverage internationally. Aircraft finance deals are done under either U.S. or U.K. law,” he said.
Forte said he’d been working on the U.K. deal for about six months, since it meant getting approval from the U.K. Solicitors Regulation Authority.
“Brexit reared its head when we were on the verge of having a partnership vote to open in the U.K.,” he said, adding that Britain abandoning the European Union does not affect the firm’s aviation finance practice, since most of its clients are not based in the U.K.
In Germany, Smith Gambrell recruited German lawyer Markus Bahmann from SSP Schiessl Rechtsanwälte to open a Munich office, supporting its long-established transactional practice serving German companies. Bahman handles transactional, intellectual property and unfair competition work for German and other European clients.
Forte said Smith Gambrell has “several hundred German clients,” which are its largest source of inbound international work for a range of transactions, including M&A, real estate and renewable energy deals.
The firm developed the practice serving German middle-market clients more than 30 years ago, he said, thanks to German partners Hans-Michael Kraus, who heads its international practice, his wife Simone Kraus, and Florian Stamm.
Forte said Smith Gambrell has worked with Bahmann for about 20 years, and has also worked closely with the lawyers from Blake Morgan. “None of these folks are unknown to us, which is the best way to recruit,” he said.
In New York, Smith Gambrell is adding seven lawyers, including the four name partners, from local boutique Balber Pickard Maldonado and Van Der Tuin. The name partners are Eric Balber, Todd Pickard, Roger Juan Maldonado and John Van Der Tuin. Two other partners, Michael Manzi and Robin Silberzwieg, and associate Nicole Haff are also joining.
The group, which will join by Feb. 1, handles real estate, corporate, litigation and intellectual property law, with a specialty in advising co-op and condo boards.
The moves will expand Smith Gambrell’s New York office at 1301 6th Ave., which it opened in 2009, to 45 lawyers. Forte said the firm will soon need more space there. “We literally have people hanging from the chandeliers in New York,” he said.