Following the exit of a second major team in Paris this year, Ashurst is facing an uphill struggle to rebuild its base in the French capital.
The firm has seen 10 Paris partners leave the firm so far this year, including a five-partner team to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in February and a four-partner team to Gibson Dunn & Crutcher earlier this month, alongside the departure of Paris tax head Nadine Gelli to local firm De Pardieu Brocas Maffei.
In the wake of the exits – which have almost halved the office’s partnership, taking it down to 12 – Ashurst has made some incremental moves to shore up the base. However, the rebuilding process is not expected to be easy.
One partner at a US firm in Paris comments: “It’s going to be challenging, no doubt. How are they going to rebuild it? I’m not sure there will be many people knocking down the door.”
The firm has moved to bolster the local partnership in recent months with the hires of Linklaters leveraged finance senior associate Pierre Roux and PwC tax director Emmanuelle Pontnau-Faure – both of who joined as partners – as well as the promotion of employment lawyer Nataline Fleury in May’s partnership round.
However, the relatively junior status of its new partners means the firm is still on the lookout for more heavyweight recruits.
Managing partner Paul Jenkins says the firm is looking “at all levels of seniority” and does not dismiss the possibility of a team hire.
He adds that the office will now pivot away from its traditional focus on private equity.
“Previously the office’s finance practice focused primarily on leveraged and acquisition finance, with a focus on private equity clients. We now have a broader capability that is more aligned to the rest of the firm and particularly our business on the continent and in the UK. We will be rebuilding particularly in the corporate, restructuring and dispute areas.”
Jenkins is hoping the office will become more integrated following the departures, which some see as indicative of a culture typical to many firms’ French offices. As one recruiter puts it: “Paris offices can be tricky generally at all firms, as they often tend to be quite autonomous. If they are successful and they don’t want interference from the mothership, it can be quite frustrating for firms.”
Ashurst seems to have been no exception, with one partner at the firm saying: “Everyone’s Paris office is always the same. They don’t give two stuffs about anybody else and live in their own world.”
Jenkins concedes: “There were aspects of that office that were not as integrated as the rest of the firm. We’re focusing on hiring partners or a team that are integrated.”
However, the competition for talent in Paris is fierce, as top-paying US firms continue to build their presence across Europe. This January, Gibson Dunn recruited a technology, media and telecoms team from Allen & Overy, while Goodwin Procter launched in Paris last year with a team from King & Wood Mallesons.
One Gibson Dunn partner sums up the challenge facing Ashurst, saying: “There is a question over whether you stay with a British or international firm with a more established presence in Europe, or whether you look at US firms that have more ambition to grow and develop new practices. Having a successful practice in any sector is very difficult without a strong US practice. I think that’s been the case for partners coming over from Ashurst.”
Beyond France, market sources say the wider Ashurst partnership has rallied together following an uneasy 2015-16 when turnover dropped 10%, PEP fell to £603,000 and a string of partners left the firm.
One City legal recruiter says: “I think the partners in London have really pulled together. There’s a very strong culture there and the general view from speaking to people there is that the worst is over.”
The firm is expecting to post improved financial results later this month, a development that is likely to help in attracting new recruits.
Jenkins says: “If you talk to our partners, there’s a great energy and momentum in the firm. Our results for the last financial year will be very positive – we will have met the targets set when I became managing partner a year ago”.
One Ashurst London partner adds: “We’re in a much more stable place than we were 18 months ago – it’s up to us to grab opportunities.”