Lighting-up time

By James Barnes

18 September 2012 at 15:45 BST

New York's Pillsbury is historically strong in energy and financial services - but few outside the US have ever heard of it. Chairman Jim Rishwain tells James Barnes how they are boosting its global image with a client-centric business model.

Jim Rishwain

As a law firm that is as proud to boast of its rich history as it is quick to accept its relatively low-profile status outside of the US, Pillsbury – or to give its full name, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, thanks to a series of mergers – believes in doing things differently.

Specialist partners

With a motto towards business that boils down to ‘global clients expect global solutions’, it is perhaps no surprise that Pillsbury’s international successes are closely linked to its long-standing specialist partners.
One of the best examples of this ethos is the firm’s relationship with oil giant Chevron, which has lasted well over a century and seen Pillsbury advise on some the multinational’s biggest deals, including an $18.5 billion acquisition of Unocal in 2005.
Pillsbury’s close association with the energy sector is no coincidence, and the firm continues to attract the biggest players in the power game. For more than 10 years, George Barovas – a leading authority in nuclear procurement investment – has prowled the halls of the firm’s London energy group, overseeing a variety of high-profile projects and transactions across the globe.

Chief visionary

Pillsbury chairman Jim Rishwain is no slouch either. Recognised as a highly accomplished real estate lawyer, Mr Rishwain – who has been with the firm for 26 years - now has the task of being the Pillsbury board’s ‘key advisor, top executive, chief visionary, decision maker and communicator’.
Pillsbury has 11 US offices and last year opened a base in Abu Dhabi – the capital of the oil rich United Arab Emirates – to take the firm’s foreign office count to five.
Having been in London since 1971, the firm is keen to make use of its English law capabilities, and also use the office as a launch pad to boost its profile globally.
As acknowledged market leaders in many of today’s most dynamic areas, Pillsbury fancies itself as a vibrant, energetic firm. Despite a footprint that is smaller than many of the top global firms, Pillsbury punches far above its weight by combining strong tactics and impressive personnel.
Now it wants to start publicly broadcasting its position, as Mr Rishwain has demonstrated within the past few weeks by actively promoting the firm to legal profession media commentators.

Although the firm does not always grab the headlines, Pillsbury is best known for being a major player in the energy sector. Is that a fair assessment?
We have settled on certain industry sectors that are important to us based upon our client needs, our capabilities and what’s driving the global economy. We are a client-focused, client-informed firm with a long history of deep relationships, working throughout the world.
We want to be market leaders in the industries in which we focus. The focus that we have starts with energy, but it’s important to recognise that a lot of firms just talk about oil and gas when they mention energy. We have critical strength in all areas: oil, gas, coal, minerals, solar, wind, renewables, utilities, power and nuclear. We are also very active in financial services, with a heavy emphasis on banks and financial institutions.
If you look at our top client list, a significant number of those clients are financial institutions and we have a wide variety of work for them, both in the financial sector and non-financial sector. We also closed more IPOs [initial public offerings] in the tech sector in the US over the past 15 years than any other law firm. We dominate in emerging growth in the technology market.

Around 95 per cent of your lawyers are in the US. Is it possible for the practice to consider itself a truly global firm?
The fact of the matter is that somewhere between one quarter and one third of our revenues come from outside the US. We have a true appreciation of what is happening outside the US, and have had that appreciation for quite some time.
A significant percentage of our clients’ revenues are also driven from outside the US and, as a client-focused firm, part of our strategy is to serve our clients wherever they are in the world and expand the size and scope of the services we provide to them. We have an objective based upon our clients’ needs to be global in nature.

You currently have offices in London, Shanghai, Tokyo and Abu Dhabi. Is your current strategy to continue opening offices overseas?
It’s less about the offices and more about the practices. However, our strategy for outside the US is that we do need to open new offices, and we plan to do that over time to match up with our already international reach.
Our firm has individuals working throughout the world. I wouldn’t look at our footprint – it’s misleading. If you look at our practices, our clients and the transactions we handle you will see we have a significant global presence.

How does the London office fit in to your global strategy?
This position plays an extremely important role in what we are doing throughout the world. English law is prevalent in many of the transactions we handle throughout the world. We need English law and English law practitioners to be touching everything we do.
The lawyers in the London office are critical to the transactions we are handling in China, the Middle East, Australia and so on. We want to continue to expand our English law capabilities.

Did the London office act as a launch pad for your recent opening in Abu Dhabi?
Absolutely. The opening of Abu Dhabi was really to create a hub for our long-standing Middle East practice.
That practice relied upon English law, so the office really ties together our London and Houston connection and brings it to the Middle East. We recently brought in two partners from Dewey [& LeBoeuf] – Jim Simpson in London & Steven Jurgensson in Abu Dhabi – and they work together on a daily basis.

Most global law firms over the past decade have looked at the Gulf region and opted for Dubai. Why did you open in Abu Dhabi instead?
We sat down and looked at that two or three years ago. We talked with energy companies such as Qatar Petroleum and financial institutions such as RBS and, although at that time virtually all law firms were in Dubai, the answer we got was that the growing place to be was Abu Dhabi.
On top of that, two clients really supported our efforts to be in Abu Dhabi – the Emirates Nuclear Energy Commission [Pillsbury advised ENEC on its $20 billion project to build and operate three nuclear energy facilities in the UAE in 2010] and Qatar Petroleum.
In both cases it was more relevant for us to be in Abu Dhabi. Even before we had the office, we had a group of lawyers in the emirate living in hotels, so it made sense. Further down the road, we will probably try to couple our Abu Dhabi office with a position in Doha [the capital of Qatar], and then, in time, create an affiliation in Riyadh [the Saudi Arabian capital]. We may never go to Dubai.

Does that mean that in your view Dubai is over-lawyered?
I want to be aware of what our competitors are doing, but I wasn’t going to make a decision for Pillsbury to be in Dubai just because everyone else is.
I made a decision as to what our clients thought was the right move. That’s how we approach it.

Recent news suggests the Chinese economy is starting to slow. What impact does that have on your planning for 2013?
The ebb and flow of the US and Chinese economies may impact our business plan for that year, but for our longer-term strategy it does not.
We’re not going to be the most dominant law firm in China, there’s too much choice. But we want to be a significant player in the markets where we are active, and we want to build a brand there.
We have many clients, such as Disney, who want to do business in China and will use us if we have the right capabilities. Equally important is building our brand in China as there are many Chinese interests that want to work throughout the world, including back in the US and we want to make sure that Pillsbury is relevant. We want to be their firm of choice.

With the legal sector still shaking from the demise of Dewey & LeBoeuf, would you say there was something inherently wrong with the US legal profession?
If you take a look at the last three to four years in the US, it’s been extraordinary. Firms with great clients and great lawyers have fallen apart. A winning formula is not just to rely on those great clients and lawyers – you have to do more.
It’s a transformative time. There are issues with law firm models worldwide, but I also think it’s a consolidation of the market.
At Pillsbury, we govern ourselves based upon guiding principles, and we build trust and inspire confidence among our partners. Firms fall apart when they start to lose their key practitioners.
Maybe these key people lost faith in the firm, were not in line with its direction, were not connected with the leadership, did not have trust in the firm or the firm’s financial structure was not sound.
All of those things are in place
at Pillsbury.

What would a lateral hire find attractive about joining Pillsbury?
Five years ago, a lateral partner candidate would have taken what I just said for granted. But now smart laterals are asking questions about prospective firms’ financial positions – and at Pillsbury we have a rock-solid balance sheet.


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