Cleary as one of the firms said to have given advice to BNP Paribas, a French bank, on transactions with Iran, Sudan and Cuba, over which BNP later had to pay a $9 billion settlement. (Cleary has declined to comment on this.)
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RARE is the finance minister of a developing country who does not have Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton on speed-dial. Cleary, based in New York, has long been the go-to law firm for governments in debt crises. Since 1983 the firm has advised 28 sovereign debtors in 54 restructurings. Its recent clients include Greece and Iraq, as well as sturdier places like South Korea. Cleary’s lawyers have reaped both fame and fortune as a result: a survey of 17,000 lawyers by Vault, a jobs site, ranked it America’s seventh most prestigious firm. Its profit per partner of $2.9m last year ranks it 12th, according toAmerican Lawyer magazine.
In 2014, however, the firm’s sovereign litigation clients have had a year to forget. In July arbitrators in The Hague ruled that Russia had illegally expropriated Yukos, a big oil company. They ordered the government to pay shareholders $50 billion, 20 times the previous record for arbitration. Argentina has suffered three setbacks at America’s Supreme Court. In March the justices reinstated a $185m award against the country. Three months later, they let a ruling stand that banned Argentina from servicing the bonds it issued in debt swaps in 2005 and 2010, unless it also paid the full claim of “holdout” investors who rejected those deals. The decision led Argentina to default. The court also approved the holdouts’ use of American subpoenas to hunt for Argentine assets abroad.
Other parts of Cleary’s practice are also having a rough year. This week an appeals court in New York ruled that a lower court was wrong to dismiss lawsuits that victims of terrorist attacks in Israel had brought against Cleary’s client, National Westminster Bank (see article). A charity linked to Hamas, a Palestinian militant group, had held an account at the bank. Cleary also represented Google in a failed effort to prevent a new “right to be forgotten” being established in Europe, forcing the company to block some search results. And press reports have identified Cleary as one of the firms said to have given advice to BNP Paribas, a French bank, on transactions with Iran, Sudan and Cuba, over which BNP later had to pay a $9 billion settlement. (Cleary has declined to comment on this.)
In any other industry, such a string of losses would send customers scurrying. Indeed, in Argentina opposition lawmakers have proposed a bill to make the government switch firms. However, the relationship between a law firm’s income and its success in court is murky. Clients know that in a high-stakes suit they and their opponents will both hire skilled and costly counsel, and one side will lose. Unlike in college debating contests, real-world results depend mainly on the merits rather than the ingenuity of the arguments. Furthermore, governments are sometimes more motivated by the political benefits of pursuing a case than by their chances of winning. Attempts by President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (pictured) to make political hay out of Argentina’s restructuring case seem to have annoyed the judge, making Cleary’s job harder.
Since a firm’s record of suits won and lost is a poor measure of the quality of its work, clients rely instead on reputation, experience and capacity. And on these criteria, the barriers to entry in sovereign-debt litigation are formidable. Most diversified law firms are wary of advising governments, since that would prevent them from working for the hedge funds that often sue sovereign issuers for payment. Of the rest, few have the global presence to represent a government wherever its bonds are sold or creditors try to seize assets. About half of Cleary’s 1,200 lawyers work outside America, spread among 11 countries. Given Cleary’s prestige and generous pay, it would be hard for rivals to poach its lawyers.
Often, when Cleary loses it wins. If Argentina or Russia had been victorious in their recent cases, legal work for them would probably have fallen off. Instead, their defeats pave the way for years of enforcement battles, and thus lots of juicy fees for its lawyers.