Thursday, January 22, 2009

World City Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh region has plenty to celebrate. The glaring exception is the lack of robust global connectivity. Pittsburgh is remarkable in its domestic orientation. Immigration is just a trickle and the airport barely qualifies as international. Actually, Pittsburgh is a lot more worldly than the evidence would suggest. Consider the curious case of Reed Smith:

Where Cleary has had success operating out of its New York and London offices, Reed Smith is hoping that its plan to create a sizable local footprint, as well as the insider status of one lateral, will set it apart. Once known as the largest firm in Pittsburgh, Reed Smith has pursued an aggressive growth strategy and now has sizable offices across the US and around the world.

The firm entered the Middle East via a 2007 merger with London-based Richards Butler, which had a 30-year-old office in Abu Dhabi. But Richards Butler’s office in Dubai, an equally critical market, was only a start-up operation, says Reed Smith global managing partner and chairman Gregory Jordan. That changed when Reed Smith lured Sahia Ahmad, Dubai World’s inaugural general counsel, to the firm in November 2007.

A native emirate who spent eight years at A&O in Dubai before joining Dubai World, Ahmad has given Reed Smith the all important foot-in-the-door to one of the region’s most active sovereign funds. Last March, for example, Ahmad set up a three-hour meeting introducing Reed Smith to a roomful of Dubai World’s most senior executives. Ahmad, Jordan, and four other Reed Smith partners met with executives such as Abdul Wahid Al Ulama, the Dubai World group chief legal officer, and the legal chiefs for wealthy subsidiaries Nakheel, Limitless and Istithmar. They were familiar faces to Ahmad. In fact, she had recruited many of the in-house lawyers. “It was like a reunion of sorts,” says Jordan.

Within two months, Reed Smith won its first assignment from the holding company and a spot, among four other firms, on the fund’s US adviser panel. Ahmad says the matters have grown to include US corporate merger and regulatory work, as well as some local Dubai-based work. “It’s been exactly what we set up to do,” she says.

Today there is no limit to Reed Smith’s ambitions in the region. The firm has 24 lawyers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. But Jordan hopes to have 100 lawyers in the United Arab Emirates by 2010, through relocations, lateral hires or more acquisitions. The current global slowdown has not changed those aspirations, Jordan says: “There is no danger in thinking big.”

Normally, I would be inclined to pass over what seems to be an isolated exception. But Reed Smith is competing with international legal powerhouses based in London and New York, where you would expect to find such activity. In Pittsburgh?

Pittsburgh is full of such contradictions. It is both a postindustrial backwater and surprisingly cosmopolitan. But the former effectively defines the city. There does seem to be the potential for Pittsburgh to rise again as a world city. The question remains: Why hasn't it happened already. Can Pittsburgh pull a Chicago?

Edit: After posting, I was having doubts about the extent of Reed Smith's current Pittsburgh connection. I Googled Gregory Jordan just to make sure that Pittsburgh could be considered the center of Reed Smith's Middle East venture.

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