The Magic Circle and the USA

A unique look at who the Magic Circle of law firms are and how they have continued to expand their growth in the US with additional hires.

Published on 5 May 2021
Written by Kushraj Cheema
Kushraj Cheema

The British Are Coming

Almost half a century since crossing the Atlantic and opening in New York in 1977, leading law firm Freshfields announced the launch of its first California office in late 2020, hiring a multidisciplinary team from local firms and transferring two attorneys from Brussels and New York. The Silicon Valley outpost is headed by Chambers-ranked capital markets attorney Sarah Solum, who arrived from Davis Polk, and includes highly rated securities litigation partners Boris Feldman and Doru Gavril from Wilson Sonsini, up-and-coming corporate attorney John Fisher from Sidley Austin and Latham & Watkins’ employee benefits partner Maj Vaseghi. All some of the top lawyers working for their respective law firms.

The firm was swiftly joined on the Pacific Coast by Magic Circle rival Allen & Overy, which burnished its signature credentials in complex financing work through the addition of a renewables-focused project finance team from Akin Gump in Los Angeles, including ranked partners Daniel Sinaiko, Matthew Nesburn and Andrea Wang Lucan, as well as adding the highly-rated John Marciano in Washington, DC.

What is the Magic Circle?

Initially coined in the early 1990s, the Magic Circle is a collective term used to describe what many consider to be the leading UK-headquartered law firms - Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Freshfields, Linklaters and Slaughter and May. The highly esteemed quintet are renowned for their pedigree in the most complex and high- profile mandates for the most significant clients, their outstanding financial performance and the highly impressive number of individual lawyers working across a multitude of practice areas offered.

The impressive growth of law firms expanding their coverage across the United States

The West Coast office launches, which mark the first venture into California by a member of the Magic Circle since Clifford Chance shuttered its 5-year old offices in 2007, reversed a recent trend in the London market, where expansive US-headquartered firms would frequently staff their own offices from among the partner ranks of elite UK firms.

The arrival in Northern California demonstrates Freshfields’ rapidly-growing strength in the USA, fuelled by a significant expansion in the number of its partners through lateral hiring. Indeed, before its launch in the Silicon Valley, Freshfields’ East Coast hires included the attention-grabbing addition of Ethan Klingsberg, a highly rated M&A partner from Cleary Gottlieb, and Willkie Farr securities litigator Mary Eaton, both of whom are ranked in the Chambers USA 2021 Guide, as well as adding employee benefits expert Lori Goodman from Latham & Watkins and hiring antitrust duo Meghan Rissmiller from Hogan Lovells and Julie Elmer from the US Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division.

Meanwhile, Allen & Overy also saw the arrivals of Paul Keller and Adam Sofen in 2020, from Norton Rose Fulbright and Sullivan & Cromwell respectively, while Clifford Chance added Department of Justice antitrust chief Peter Mucchetti and Linklaters welcomed Schulte Roth investment funds partner Brad Caswell last year.

The 2020 data

Freshfields and Allen & Overy now boast similar numbers of ranked partners to Clifford Chance, whose historic focus on the US market – including its merger with New York-based Rogers & Wells in 2000 – had seen it edge ahead of its compatriots in the Magic Circle. With the exception of Slaughter and May, which closed its New York base in 2004 and eschews international offices beyond its Brussels, Beijing and Hong Kong locations, all four remaining Magic Circle firms are rapidly emerging as major competitors in the US, each boasting an increasing number of elite, Chambers-ranked attorneys across a diverse range of practice areas.

This year also saw Allen & Overy overtake Clifford Chance in the number of rankings the firm itself holds, aided in part through the expansion of the USA Guide’s Capital Markets and Projects rankings in the 2021 edition of the USA Guide. Moreover, all four Magic Circle firms with US-based operations continue to increase their presence in the 2021 Guide – notably, in areas beyond their traditional areas of expertise in cross-Atlantic transactional and regulatory mandates. For instance, Freshfields and Allen & Overy now enjoy local rankings in California, a fiercely contested market traditionally dominated by homegrown firms.

The future of lawyers working remotely, globally

While Magic Circle firms have long been considered fixtures of the US legal market since opening their doors in New York almost half a century ago, the recent glut of hiring and lateral expansion can be seen as an acceleration of these firms’ attempts to crack the US market in a much bigger and more eye-catching way. Furthermore, given some suggestions that Clifford Chance and Linklaters will follow their compatriots’ lead in stateside expansion, alongside the novel options for local hiring and remote work in the post-pandemic world, it appears that this trend will only continue going forwards.

Number of Firm Rankings in Chambers USA 2021
Number of Firm Rankings in Chambers USA
Number of Individuals Rankings in Chambers USA 2021
Number of Individuals Rankings in Chambers USA

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