As 2019 draws to a close, we look back at the year's biggest stories in a year that saw an avalanche of initiatives designed to improve diversity and inclusion in the profession at least partly as an antidote to the #MeToo cases that emerged into full public scrutiny.
The year was peppered with #MeToo scandals involving allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct typically perpetrated by male law firm partners against more junior female lawyers. Perhaps the most striking case – because it centred on such an admired law firm leader – was atypical in many respects. In March, Bill Voge, chair and managing partner of Latham & Watkins, resigned from the firm over conduct that, according to the firm’s official statement, 'involved the exchange of communications of a sexual nature with a woman whom he has never met in person and who had no connection to the firm’. In due course, more details about the circumstances that led to his resignation emerged, prompting some sympathy towards Voge. Meanwhile, law firms across the world will have been moving to stamp out improper conduct and improve investigatory processes when things do go wrong.
The year kicked off with the news that the body of UK Eversheds Sutherland partner Geraint Thomas was found at the bottom of cliffs in Wales the day after he had been accused of inappropriate behaviour towards female colleagues. At the subsequent inquest, it was revealed that he had been suspended pending an investigation into the allegations. Thomas' wife, Rebecca, told the inquest she had "no doubt" a work meeting about the allegations was "fundamental" to a change in his state of mind, according to a BBC report of the proceedings. The year has seen an array of initiatives to promote mental wellbeing within the law, including this example courtesy of Kirkland & Ellis.
Diversity and inclusion
Mental health wellbeing and diversity and inclusion go hand in hand and throughout the year, Global Legal Post has reported on initiatives designed to make the legal profession more diverse, including this one by European corporate counsel, who penned an open letter to law firms urging them to improve their diversity records.
Legal technology and innovation
You know something is afoot when a firm as ‘blue blooded’ as Slaughter and May launches a tech hub. This was the year when a string of law firms in London mirrored a trend in the booming Fintech sector by launching incubators for tech start-ups. A report by the UK Law Society identified 10 cities across the world fighting it out to get the largest slice of the $15.9bn legal tech market, including San Francisco, London and Singapore. Meanwhile, March witnessed the IPO on London’s Stock Exchange of top 50 UK firm DFW, which used the funds this month to buy leading Spanish independent firm Rousaud Costas Duran for €50m.
The most eye-catching merger of 2019 is the one that didn’t happen, following the failure of the long-running merger talks between O'Melveny & Myers and magic circle UK firm Allen & Overy. But plenty of deals did get over the line, notably a procession of combinations by Dentons, including two in Latin America that prompted the global giant to lay claim to being the first pan-Latin American and Caribbean firm. Meanwhile, five law firms in Spain and Latin America combined to launch the new Velae Legal Group while BonelliErede and Lombardi e Associati joined forces to form Italy’s largest independent firm. Earlier this month, AmLaw 100 duo Faegre Baker and Drinker Biddle announced they will merge to create a top 50 firm with revenue approaching $1bn.
The Big Four
There weren’t any breakthrough moments for the Big Four accountancy firms as they continued to build their legal arms across the world; there may never be. Nevertheless, The Global Legal Post regularly reported on hires, launches and other initiatives, including a ‘new law’ launch in Australia by PwC, KPMG’s legal debut in Indonesia, Deloitte’s unveiling of a legal tech incubator in London and EY’s acquisition of Pangea3 Legal Managed Services.
The world’s largest law firms collectively reported strong growth this year, with the AmLaw 100 posting their biggest gains since 2010 with revenue up by 5.5% against an increase of 6.1% in profit-per-equity-partner. This fed through into another bumper year for end-of-year associate bonuses, although the fact that the leading US firms held bonuses at the same rate as last year has been interpreted as reflecting a belief that 2020 may be a tougher year. End of year capital markets and M&A reports by Baker McKenzie and Allen & Overy respectively reported a fall in deal activity in 2019, but from historically high levels, and predicted a subdued 2020.
The US-China trade war, Brexit, the Hong Kong unrest and the forthcoming US elections are all cited as potential drags on economic growth in 2020. The prospect of a ‘hard’ Brexit saw record numbers of UK solicitors register in Ireland, although the Conservative Party victory in the UK General Election has signalled an orderly exit from the EU in January. Meanwhile, 2019 was the year when climate change moved up law firms’ agendas. On 20 December, Top Dutch firm NautaDutilh helped secure a historic court ruling demanding climate action, while Ashurst recently appointed a global sustainability partner and Baker McKenzie has announced a plan to significantly reduce its global carbon emissions over the next decade.