Houses of Parliament: law firms can give a client’s view before legislation is passed
Houses of Parliament: law firms can give a client’s view before legislation is passed © Getty Images

Former politicians and civil servants are being hired to bolster law firms’ public policy teams as corporate clients seek guidance on Brexit and coronavirus.

UK law firms, unlike their US counterparts, have not traditionally advised on political risk. But since 2016 demand for strategic advice has soared as businesses try to navigate a shifting geopolitical landscape that now includes coronavirus and Britain leaving the EU.

Covid-19 has led to extraordinary government intervention in swaths of the UK economy — an estimated 30 per cent of the workforce was supported by the state-backed furlough scheme earlier this year.

This week law firm Travers Smith said it was hiring Nicky Morgan, a former Conservative MP and ex-secretary of state, whose roles included leading on government policy about internet regulation. She will be a consultant to the firm focusing on technology. Geoffrey Cox QC, a Tory MP and former attorney-general, has taken a role at Withers as a consultant global counsel, having received official permission to do so.

Charles Brasted, head of public law and policy at law firm Hogan Lovells, says the intersection of politics, business and policy has become more significant. “As business has grown more complex, so has regulation,” he says. “In the past few months state involvement in business has grown [more than ever] and the environment is less predictable than for a long time.”

The US has a long tradition of lawyer-lobbyists and a revolving door between politics and law firms with public policy practices. US law firms Akin Gump and Squire Patton Boggs hired ex-congressmen last year and Covington & Burling boasts of a “mini state department,” with more than 120 advisers, including former government officials, diplomats and regulators, who work with lawyers.

Hogan Lovells, created from a 2010 transatlantic merger, was able to call on the political expertise of its Washington DC office in advising clients on Brexit as early as 2014. The firm more recently hired Robert Gardener, a public policy expert and former civil servant in the UK government’s Cabinet Office.

In 2015 Linklaters recruited William Hague, former UK foreign secretary, to chair its international advisory group which brings in external perspectives into the firm. He and Meghan O’Sullivan, a former US deputy national security adviser for Iraq, spoke about the ramifications of Covid-19 to clients this year.

DLA Piper’s government affairs team includes Paul Hardy, who formerly worked at the European Commission and as senior EU legal adviser to both Houses of Parliament.

Many law firms believe they have an edge over traditional public affairs and political consultancies because they can press a client’s point to the government using their deep technical legal knowledge. They can also react quickly for clients when legislation is drafted, rather than the client issuing a judicial review to challenge new laws once they are on the statute book.

Avonhurst, founded last year by former Jones Day lawyer Jonathan Bloom, is a UK political strategy and legal advisory boutique firm that helps corporate clients and investors assess where to invest capital by studying political risk. Its head of global political strategy, Tina Fordham, is a former global political analyst at Citi. Other senior advisers include Gavin Barwell, former chief of staff to then prime minister Theresa May during her key Brexit negotiations, and Nick Houghton, a former UK chief of defence staff.

“We are seeing more political dimensions in all transactions such as private equity and M&A,” Mr Bloom says. The firm helps clients decide where to deploy capital by using a data driven analysis of geopolitical factors. A client might seek advice on the possible direction of a populist government and what that means across five industry sectors, for example. “It is almost underselling ourselves to call it a law firm,” he suggests.

Law firm public policy teams expect demand for their services to continue to rise. “This area is going to be more important for law firms given the level of political unpredictability that we have at the moment,” says Mr Brasted.

RankInnovative practice groups and teams
STANDOUTWINNER: Hogan Lovells — Since appointing former UK Cabinet Office civil servant Robert Gardener as director of government affairs in September 2018, the practice has been providing clients with access to policymakers. It can provide strategic advice on critical challenges such as Covid-19 and the UK departure from the EU, taking into account legal, policy and political considerations. It can also help represent client interests to policymakers, on topics such as guidance on returning staff to the workplace after lockdown.
STANDOUTPinsent Masons — The Cleantech team at Pinsent Masons works with the firm’s utilities, technology, local authority and investor clients to support green energy projects. The lawyers advised German company Sönnen Community on using blockchain to enable customers to sell the energy their solar panels produce. It has helped Nissan Europe on a project that aims to demonstrate how surplus energy stored in electric vehicles can be usefully flowed back to the UK’s National Grid. The team have also worked with energy tech company Electron and several electricity distributors in the UK on a research project looking at the potential uses of blockchain in developing more flexible and greener energy generation systems.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDAshurst — Ashurst Advance Digital is a new technology arm of the firm that advises clients on the implementation of technology for legal and other business needs. During the Covid-19 pandemic it has advised lending banks on implementing the UK's coronavirus business interruption loan scheme (CBILS) and is helping one client to digitise its cross-border legal advice. The team can call on expertise in the fields of law, engineering, customer engagement, sales, and product development.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDAvonhurst — The firm launched last year with a mission to combine legal advice with political analysis. Its service aims to help clients predict outcomes of critical events such as Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. For one client, a global asset manager, Avonhurst's work includes analysis of its real estate and credit portfolios, as well as political risk and macroeconomic trends. By providing legal and political analytical support as one service, alongside abolishing the billable hour, the firm aims to provide advice to clients more cheaply than if they dealt with several specialist advisers.
HIGHLY COMMENDEDEversheds Sutherland — The firm launched Propel in 2019 to bring litigation technology and legal project management into one team. As virtual hearings and digitisation of the disputes process become more common because of the coronavirus pandemic, the team’s expertise in ediscovery, document automation and software that provides clients with oversight of costs and budgeting will become more useful.
COMMENDEDFreshfields Bruckhaus Deringer — The business and human rights practice advises on the legal and reputational risks associated with companies’ failure to respond to environmental, social and governance concerns. It created a human rights due diligence toolkit to help clients assess risk in their supply chains and manage public disclosures.
COMMENDEDLatham & Watkins — Launched a cyber incident response team in response to rising digital crime. The team is based in Germany and draws on its network across Europe to offer tailored cyber incident response plans, tech solutions and forensic IT experts and crisis communication specialists to quickly respond to data breaches.

Note: ‘winner’ indicates the organisation won the FT Innovative Lawyers: Europe 2020 award for ‘Innovative practice groups and teams’; other organisations are ranked alphabetically within bands

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