Energy boom, Europe's financial woes driving Pittsburgh law firms' global expansions
Reed Smith is bolstering its global presence with new digs in Singapore and a recent alliance with an Athens, Greece, firm that is expected to help generate work from the European financial crisis. The Pittsburgh-based law firm also hopes to open an office in Houston early next year to grab a bigger piece of the booming energy industry.
Meanwhile, K&L Gates is in talks to combine with a prominent firm in Australia and has applied to the South Korean government to open an office in Seoul. And Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney is launching a Charlotte, N.C., office and eyeing expansion to Chicago.
A few years ago, the three largest Pittsburgh-based law firms were cutting back, caught in the throes of the economic collapse.
Now they are cautiously setting their sights on new outposts where they can offer established expertise in financial or international business and reap quick rewards.
Consider Reed Smith's new office in Singapore, where Gregory Jordan, global managing partner, spent time last week to attend an opening reception and meet with clients. The city is an Asian hub for energy trading and commodities, so Reed Smith's existing clients are anxious to get a piece of business there.
"It's a natural for us because one of the fastest growing practices around the world is energy and natural resources," Mr. Jordan said, in a phone interview from Singapore.
"We have a ready-made base of clients in Europe and Asia, and they've asked us to build business in Singapore. It's very much in the strategic center of what we're trying to do. There's nothing speculative about this move for us."
The Singapore office marks 23 locations worldwide for Reed Smith, including three others in Asia: Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing. The Singapore office launched in temporary space with five attorneys, and the firm expects to have about 15 in place after it moves to the city's Ocean Financial Centre early in 2013.
It's also trying to win a share of legal transactions expected from Europe's economic woes. Last month, the firm announced an alliance with Papapolitis & Papapolitis, an Athens firm with specialties in finance and banking.
Though Reed Smith already has an office in Piraeus, Greece, that specializes in shipping and commercial work, it sees the Athens alliance as a chance to work on deals related to Greece's government debt crisis and the country's ongoing recession.
In Houston, the firm will pursue business from the energy industry, including companies it is already active with, said Mr. Jordan. "Some of the companies we're helping in Singapore are the very same we'll be helping, hopefully, in Houston, and that we're already working with in London and Pittsburgh."
But Houston also offers opportunities for legal work in health care, banking and pharmaceuticals, Mr. Jordan said.
He projected that about 15 to 20 lawyers will staff the Houston office at first, and it will grow rapidly. "Over time it will look more like we look in Chicago and Los Angeles where we have big, strong offices," he said.
Lori Carpenter, who heads a legal search firm Downtown, said law firms that retrenched and slashed expenses after the financial markets crashed in 2008 are more confident about the future. "I believe law firms are generally seeing an uptick in business and that they are very strategically approaching expansion opportunities."
Mid-size firms such as Buchanan, she said, "are retooling and revamping their services so that they can play more upon their strengths."
In Charlotte, Buchanan wants proximity to that city's banking and financial sector, which includes two of the firm's big clients: PNC Financial Services Group and Fifth Third Bank.
The firm has been contemplating an office there or in Atlanta for some time in order to strengthen its presence in the Southeast, said Jack Barbour, chief executive and managing shareholder.
To lead the Charlotte office, it tapped Mike Wielechowski, 40, a Shaler native who worked in the Pittsburgh offices of K&L and Thorp Reed & Armstrong before joining PNC as an in-house attorney. In 2005, he moved to Charlotte and worked for two local firms before his recent jump to Buchanan, where he is a partner.
"The opportunity with Mike came along and it fit in with our strategic plan," said Mr. Barbour.
The Charlotte office will launch this month with Mr. Wielechowski and two other attorneys who specialize in finance.
Though he declined to project how many lawyers Buchanan is targeting for Charlotte, Mr. Barbour said, "We intend to aggressively grow with commercial lawyers of high caliber."
As for the firm's plans in Chicago, he declined to elaborate except to say Buchanan has been looking to locate an office there.
"I feel the climate for expansion, like the economy generally, is not easy and we don't jump at opportunities quickly," he said.
For K&L, the proposed merger with Australian firm Middletons would add four offices to its current 41. While it trimmed staff during the economic downturn, K&L in recent months continued its pre-recession global growth spree, with new offices in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Milan; Doha, Qatar; and Charleston, S.C.
It has submitted paperwork for a location in Seoul following ratification last year of a U.S.-South Korean free-trade agreement that allows U.S.-based firms to establish offices there. It also applied for a license to practice local law in Singapore where it already has an office.
Reed Smith is not pursuing a local license in Singapore.
Acknowledging the economic turbulence in Europe and continued sluggish conditions in China, Mr. Jordan said the firm is overall being cautious about future expansion.
"But one thing about the legal industry: Economic uncertainty does create a demand for legal work," he said.
First Published October 15, 2012 12:00 am