US law firm Sidley Austin Brown & Wood is planning to export a new Asian managing partner early in 2005. Bill Fifield, who comes to Hong Kong from the Dallas office, will take over the reins from Ken Cote, a seven-year veteran in the role.
Fifield will take responsibility for the firm's offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore, as well as Hong Kong, while Cote will return to corporate practice in New York. A litigator, Fifield's experience stretches back to 1971, when he joined the firm as an associate, and takes in antitrust, intellectual property, derivatives and securities issues.
If Texas seems an unusual breeding ground for an Asian managing partner it may serve to point out that, for Sidley Austin at least, Dallas is not the career purgatory that Michael Lewis immortalized in Liar's Poker, his account of life as a Salomon bond trader in the 1980s. One of the firm's oldest and most important clients, Kimberly-Clark, is headquartered in Irving, Texas - Fifield served on the board of directors from 1995 through to 2003.
More important than his experience in Asia, he says, is his track record as a lawyer. "A move like this might seem at first blush a dramatic change. But the idea is that I can bring a breadth of experience to the practice that will help us to integrate and cross-sell the tremendous capabilities of our firm."
Today's Sidley Austin is borne of a merger with Brown & Wood in 2001. Fifield came from the Sidley Austin side, an old Chicago firm with a predominantly corporate client base. Cote, the departing managing partner, came from Brown & Wood, a Wall Street firm with strong ties to the investment banking community.
The switch is a sign of the times. Hong Kong was traditionally a Brown & Wood market - prior to the merger it had the bigger presence in the city, advising on banking, securities and structured finance work. But as China has opened up Hong Kong has also become an important practice for servicing corporate clients trying to crack the world's biggest single market.
Fifield will arrive in Hong Kong in mid-February but is already raring to go. "The people there are very energized," he says. "The excitement is palpable and I will look to harness some of that energy to grow our practice."