What is behind the explosion of boutique activity in Paris?
In the past week, two new firms have opened in the French capital: Swift Litigation, a six-person breakaway led by a Hogan Lovells partner, and Oyat, with 22 lawyers from French and international firms.
On Thursday, Mermoz, a 24-lawyer boutique launched just a month ago, added a seven-person competition law team led by partners from Fidal, France’s largest law firm.
All this after a busy January which saw, in addition to the launch of Mermoz, two longtime Dentons partners part ways to set up their own arbitrage shop. And the new shops of 2022 are not the only ones. Paris has been the site of half a dozen major boutique launches in 2020 and 2021, in areas ranging from arbitrage to finance to private equity.
“New firms are usually created for two reasons,” Caroline Basdevant-Soulié, co-founding partner of Oyat, told Law.com International. “There is the positive: you want to go faster, be closer to your customers, work differently, control your own future. And then there’s the negative, because you weren’t getting what you needed in your old company, and you were unlikely to get it.
Certainly, any legal market will have its share of entrepreneurial lawyers who, at some point in their careers, will want to run their own show rather than remain in Big Law’s embrace or clutches. Paris in 2022 is no exception.
Because of the timing, it’s tempting to think that this recent boom is the result of the pandemic – two years of extraordinary working conditions and workloads, which have led lawyers around the world to rethink how they want to practice and with Who. Indeed, some of the founders of these new boutiques have said that while they were happy in their old businesses and left on good terms, the pandemic has accentuated the negative aspects of big business life and may have precipitated their decision to to leave.
But it is not that simple. Boutique founders and new partners said other factors were also at play, some of them reflecting a desire and need for change in the French market.
In particular, they said, many large companies in France had been slow to accept new forms of work as more than a coping technique during the pandemic. They were reluctant to make lasting changes even though the new structure seemed to be working well.
“The pandemic has made us see that there are other ways to work,” Julien Martinet, the founding partner of Swift Litigation, told Law.com International. “Since we all had to do it, it showed us that we could and that being more flexible, more nimble, could actually be better for customers.”
Marie-Hélène Tonnellier, co-founding partner of Oyat, attributes part of the desire for rupture to the fact that the French corporate culture, which also applies to law firms, still tends to make people wait a long time juniors before they have their chance. Table.
“One of the differences for us is that our youngsters have been part of the team from the very beginning,” said Tonnellier, who practiced early in his career at French elite firms Jeantet and Moquet Borde. “In some companies, interns never talk to the client, never come to a meeting. We’re not like that.”
New boutique law firm partners also said they believe the big firms are too determined to maintain their traditional management structures, including financial structures, despite signs that a new generation of lawyers is irritating them.
“Management is very heavy in large companies, and profitability is the main objective,” said Leyla Djavadi, a former competition partner at Fidal who joined Mermoz this week with fellow competition partner Jean-Louis Fourgoux and a team. of five professionals.
Djavadi, who before joining Fidal had worked for 28 years with Fourgoux in their own boutique firm, said she understands why lawyers of all ages might want to leave life in big firms.
“They don’t want to work like they did 20 years ago anymore,” she says. “They want to have a life. Making a lot of money is not their goal, and we have to find another way to deal with it.
But if money isn’t the reason to stay at a big law firm in Paris, where lawyers on average earn far less than at comparable jobs in London or New York, that might be a reason to leave.
Firms in France, as elsewhere, reported strong earnings in pandemic years 2020 and 2021, but some, including Bredin Prat, withheld promotions to associates and advisers, citing caution over potential turbulence in the business outlook.
This management decision, said the founder of a law firm, has caused friction among aspiring lawyers who are disappointed not to share in the wealth they have helped to create.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of them leave, and very soon,” the founder said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them joined us or started their own businesses.”