Herbert Smith Freehills (HSF) is in expansion mode.
On Monday, the firm announced plans to open in Milan with the hire of Simmons & Simmons Italy dispute resolution and intellectual property head, Laura Orlando. And CEO Mark Rigotti says more growth in continental Europe is on the way.
“Europe is a very important focus for us,” he told Legal Week, The American Lawyer’s U.K.-based sibling publication. “We will keep looking for where we want to grow next, based on our clients’ needs.”
In the short to medium term, the Anglo-Australian firm is planning to build out its offices in France, Spain and Germany through hires in disputes. Rigotti said the practice balance on the continent is currently weighted more heavily toward corporate work.
Brexit, he said, is a driving factor for the firm’s need to bolster its disputes team in Europe.
“We believe Brexit will push a lot more of that litigation work into Europe,” he said. “We need to plan for that and to have an appropriate offering there.”
News of the Milan office launch came a month after HSF’s annual partner conference, which this year was held in Hong Kong. Partners say that in addition to the planned European push, the firm’s Asian business was also in the spotlight at the conference.
“The aim was to make every single partner aware of what our offering [in China and Asia] is, with a view to generating inbound and outbound work,” said a German partner who attended. “The firm is looking at how to further grow in China. If you want to further penetrate the market you need greater size.”
This aim is on its way to being realized, with HSF recently adding three projects partners in China from Pinsent Masons, including China head Hew Kian Heong.
“The hires are great for us, and we’ll continue to focus on growing in China over the next few years,” Rigotti said. “It’s certainly not the last chapter in the story—more like chapter two or three out of 10.”
The trio’s practice focus fits with HSF’s plans to build up around China’s “one belt, one road” initiative, according to Rigotti.
Under China’s “one belt, one road” foreign policy initiative, the government plans to underwrite billions of dollars of infrastructure investment in countries along the old trading route known as the Silk Road, linking China with Europe.
“It’s a difficult market, as the Chinese firms are immensely strong. But we’re concentrating on the ‘one belt, one road’ initiative,” he said. “We want to tap further into the infrastructure market—the level of construction in the Asia region is huge—and we’re keen on the capital flows surrounding it, not just acting for the Chinese developers.”
To access this transactional work, HSF is encouraging its offices to operate in a more joined-up way. The firm scrapped office separate accounts for some of its Southeast Asia bases last year, and Rigotti wants all practices to operate at the same level of integration as HSF’s disputes teams in the region.
“We’re tilting our operating model in Asia to make it more of a single team rather than a series of offices,” he explained. “We see the disputes team there as executing work in the right way in terms of cross-collaboration. We’d like to see the transactional practices [operating] at the same level.”
One London-based partner said the plans will only work if partners come at it from both ends. “The network only works if at the other end you have partners who know and like each other,” he said. “The firm can draw the boxes and lines but you need partners to plug in. It’s about leveraging those individual relationships.”
New York is also on HSF’s agenda: The firm boosted the office with the hire of its first corporate partner in New York in September. Corporate partner James Robinson rejoined the firm from Morrison & Foerster in Tokyo, having left HSF to join the U.S. firm two years ago.
Rigotti says the New York office is doing a large amount of Latin America work and this will shape its future growth.
“We’re carefully expanding. Our Latin America work is going really well in a hyper-competitive market, so that’s a great sign,” he said. Further growth in the LatAm group and arbitration practice is logical, as well as potentially in financial services disputes too.”