Sales: $155 million (1998 est.)
NAIC: 54111 Offices of Lawyers
With 25 offices in North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, Coudert Brothers is an important international law firm that represents multinational corporations, foreign governments, and individual clients. In 1879 it became the first U.S. law firm to open an overseas office—in Paris. Coudert Brothers was also the first foreign law firm to open offices in London (1960), Hong Kong (1972), Singapore (1972), Beijing (1979), and Moscow (1988), although several law firms have larger international practices. Coudert Brothers’ attorneys deal with virtually all areas of modern business and commercial law. Unlike some other large law firms, Coudert Brothers receives no more than five percent of its annual revenue from any single client.
Origins: The First Generation
Three sons of Charles Coudert started the law firm of Coudert Brothers. Born in 1795, their father sailed from his homeland of France in 1824. He settled in New York City, where he raised his family. The three brothers, Frederic Rene Coudert, Charles Coudert, Jr., and Louis Leonce Coudert, were born in New York City in 1832, 1833, and 1836, respectively.
In 1853 Frederic Rene began his law practice and two years later Charles, Jr., joined him. Then in 1857 Louis came aboard and for the first time the term Coudert Brothers was listed in the city directory.
“Since Papa Coudert’s connections lay largely in New York City’s French and Spanish populations,” wrote Virginia Veenswijk in her history of the law firm, “... from the start Coudert Brothers’ clientele was heavily composed of foreign nationals.” For example, their first known client was a French physician accused of assault.
By the 1860s the firm represented the Mora family, prominent Cubans in shipping and warehousing who also started their own bank. Building on their father’s ties to French leaders, the three brothers gained the French consulate in New York City as their most important early client. They worked on criminal extradition cases that provided little income but built their reputation as French-speaking attorneys.
During the Civil War, the firm worked on cases involving the Union’s blockading of neutral shipping from entering the port of New Orleans. In United States v. Mora, Coudert Brothers represented the Mora family that tried to ship goods to the Confederacy. Although the family lost this case, it remained a client of the law firm.
In 1879 the Couderts established a law practice in Paris. Although the Paris office for several decades was a separate business that chose its own partners, the New York and Paris offices remained closely associated and referred clients to each other.
By 1883 the firm employed eight lawyers, making it one of the nation’s largest law firms. Its three departments (real estate, litigation, and estates and trusts) represented mostly individuals, unlike New York’s other big law firms that based their expansive growth on corporate clients, mainly railroads and banks. For example, New York’s Milbank Tweed built a huge practice representing the Rockefeller family and what eventually became Chase Manhattan Bank.
In the late 1800s Coudert Brothers also represented the Roman Catholic Church as it protested the violence and prejudice of American nativists. Although not paid by the church, the law firm gained valuable contacts who helped attract paying clients. The firm also represented William R. Grace, the Democrat who in 1880 was elected as New York’s first Catholic mayor. Although Democrats, the Couderts fought the corruption of New York’s Tammany Hall.
In 1893 Frederic Rene Coudert helped represent the U.S. government in an international dispute with Britain that might have led to war. The United States complained that British and Canadian sealing ships had hunted seals in the Bering Straits almost to extinction, and thus had seized some British ships in international waters. An international tribune in France ruled against the United States, for it had jurisdiction only within three miles of its coastline. Although Coudert lost this case, he continued to argue that arbitration was an effective means of settling disputes among nations.
Coudert Brothers, especially its leader Frederic Rene Coudert, played a crucial role in developing laws regarding international trade and relations around the close of the 19th century. For example, it helped establish rules concerning ocean salvage and navigation.
As improved transportation and communication stimulated international business development in the late 1800s, Coudert Brothers worked on several important cases involving rights of private citizens in claims against foreign governments (United States v. Bayard and Bogardus v. Grace) and differences in foreign currencies (Reynes v. Dumont).
The Second Generation Takes Over: 1890s–1930s
In 1890 Frederic Rene Coudert’s son Fred Coudert began working at the family law firm. Born in 1871, Fred attended Columbia College like his father before him. Although he earned a Ph.D. in political science, Fred served as a clerk at the family law firm and studied on his own to learn how to be an attorney. Until his death in 1955, Fred Coudert led Coudert Brothers as it continued to make major contributions as an international law firm.
Around the turn of the century the firm represented the governments of Belgium, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, Italy, France, and others. It also represented some prominent families in either business or personal affairs. For example, the firm served the Jay Gould family and J.P. Morgan, especially after the House of Morgan bought a Paris bank in the 1890s. The French Rothschilds and the Couderts also were close associates, although destruction of the 19th-century records of both the New York and Paris practices prevents a thorough analysis of these relationships. In 1906 the firm represented several insurance companies regarding claims from the terrible San Francisco earthquake and fire.
After the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898 and acquired Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam from Spain as a result of the Spanish-American War, Coudert Brothers played a key role in 17 of the 20 U.S. Supreme Court cases dealing with the rights and responsibilities of these new territories. Known as the Insular Cases, they helped define what it meant to be a growing world power in the early 20th century.
New industries in the early 1900s brought new clients to Coudert Brothers. For example, the firm gained Renault, Michelin, and other manufacturers as clients when the automobile industry was still in its infancy. Coudert Brothers also helped Henry Ford in a major patent case. The silent motion picture industry also brought in fresh business for the New York firm after the turn of the century.
Coudert Brothers’ expertise in international law brought new challenges during World War I. For example, it represented the French government when it arranged in 1915 to borrow $500 million from private U.S. banks. The firm also helped the Russian and Italian governments as they sought to purchase U.S. supplies and weapons after they joined the Allied nations in their fight against Germany and the other Central Powers. Meanwhile, Coudert Brothers attorneys consulted with President Woodrow Wilson on how to deal with the Mexican Revolution.
In the 1920s Coudert Brothers and Coudert Frères, the Paris practice, both prospered. As more American elites moved to Paris, Coudert Frères represented various Guggenheims, Vanderbilts, and other prominent individuals regarding their wills and estates. American firms such as General Motors, Western Electric, Du Pont, Frigidaire, 3M, and ITT established French operations with the counsel of Coudert Frères. Meanwhile, the New York office benefited from plenty of estate work, litigation, and representation of U.S. subsidiaries of French companies. By 1929 Coudert Brothers had 11 partners, mostly young men in their 30s. Although Coudert Brothers did well in the 1920s, big New York law firms such as Sullivan & Cromwell, White & Case, and the Cravath firm grew much faster and larger.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Coudert Brothers’ earnings declined significantly, but the firm remained profitable. Like some other law firms, it represented the increased number of firms declaring bankruptcy. And it also represented new clients in the entertainment and movie industry as it grew in the 1930s. For example, Coudert Brothers successfully defended comedian W.C. Fields when he was accused of torturing his canary in one of his acts. The firm’s corporate practice grew slowly, with clients such as Banca Commerciale Italiana and the Buckley family’s oil and gas firms.
As war approached in Europe in the late 1930s, Coudert Brothers represented France in its purchase of American airplanes and engines. Many of those planes did not reach France before it was invaded by Germany; they ended up being used by the British in the Battle of Britain. In any case, those purchases stimulated the U.S. aircraft industry, which helped the United States once it joined the Allies after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The firm’s most controversial litigation occurred during World War II when it represented its long-term client the Banque de France. Many for years mistakenly thought the firm represented Vichy France, a Nazi puppet state, and thus the firm probably lost many clients in the postwar era.
The Third Generation After World War II
By 1944 Alexis C. Coudert, the son of Fred Coudert, was in effect managing the family law firm. The corporate practice had reached a point of equal billing with the firm’s litigation practice and soon exceeded estate billings for the first time. In 1946 the firm gained Tiffany & Company as a client. About the same time it took on its first major antitrust and libel cases. In the 1950s the firm represented the Greer estate in a famous case that became the basis of the Simon & Schuster bestseller The Greer Case: A True Court Drama and later a TV show starring actor Raymond Burr.
In the mid-1950s Coudert Brothers began a major change in its overall direction. For about a century it had remained essentially a modest-sized law firm working with elite clients, whether individuals or foreign governments. Its practice had brought considerable acclaim but nowhere near the financial rewards of the larger Wall Street firms that represented much larger corporate clients. Consequently, Coudert Brothers, with about 28 lawyers compared to other New York firms with about 80 lawyers, decided for the first time that it had to really expand or die.
In response to more American investment in nations rebuilt with Marshall Plan funds after World War II and to the creation of the Common Market headquartered in Brussels, Coudert Brothers launched its London office in 1960 and its Brussels office in 1965.
With offices in five cities in 1970, Coudert Brothers expanded to 13 offices by the end of the 1970s. In 1972 it opened offices in Hong Kong and Singapore. After leaving as ambassador to the Organization of American States to join Coudert Brothers in 1969, Sol Linowitz promoted the firm’s Rio de Janeiro office that opened in 1976. To serve French and Japanese clients desiring to do business in California and other western states, the firm in 1977 started a branch in San Francisco. Then in the winter of 1978–79 Coudert Brothers started offices in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Manama, Bahrain. The Rio de Janeiro, Riyadh, and Manama offices later were closed.
In 1979 the government of the People’s Republic of China began to seek foreign investors, which resulted in Coudert Brothers being the first outside law firm to operate in China. From 1979 to 1981 three of its lawyers taught a class on international law and foreign trade and investment for public officials in Beijing. “Between seminars and courses for the Chinese on American and international law and articles and seminars for Americans and Europeans on Chinese law,” wrote Virginia Kays Veenswijk, “disseminating information took up a major share of everyone’s time and energy during the period between 1979 and 1983 when Coudert Brothers was the only law firm with a ‘presence’ in China.”
Starting in 1979, Coudert Brothers also began to represent clients in China. For example, it provided counsel that led to the building of the Great Wall Hotel, oil company investments in off-shore drilling in Chinese waters, and the contracts for the first visit by the Peking Opera to New York City.
All this growth in the late 1970s was exciting for the firm but also resulted in considerable confusion and misunderstandings. However, Alexis Coudert still was at the helm, so the firm held together. But major changes came after he died in 1980. From that point, the firm for the first time in its history was not run by the Coudert family.
Late 20th Century: Family Practice No Longer
In 1984 Coudert Brothers opened an office in Sydney and three years later established an office in Tokyo. The firm in 1986 opened offices in Los Angeles and San Jose and the same year laterally hired 32 attorneys, including the entire antitrust section of Lord Day & Lord. Two years later it was the first Western law firm to start an office in Moscow. Coudert Brothers grew from a total of 122 lawyers in 1987 (53 partners and 64 associates) to 160 lawyers in 1990 (61 partners and 94 associates). That included more women attorneys, which increased from four partners and 42 associates in 1986 to ten partners and 71 associates in 1990.
In the late 1980s the firm’s finances improved, gross revenues increasing from $52 million to $120 million from 1986 to 1989. The American Lawyer noticed these changes, moving Coudert Brothers from number 99 based on 1986 profits per partner of only $155,000 to number 34 in 1989 based on its $405,000 profits per partner.
A 1991 review of New York law firms found many problems at Coudert Brothers. The author wrote, “Divisiveness has plagued the firm since non-Couderts assumed its leadership,” a problem covered in some detail in the firm’s history. The review also stated, “High turnover of both partners and associates—as well as somewhat indiscriminate lateral hiring—has weakened the firm’s departments and diminished the quality of its work product.” Lastly, the firm’s management by two committees “receives virtually universal criticism from observers.”
On a more positive note, the review found that, “Associates love Coudert” because they received interesting assignments, good training, and enough responsibility without being overworked. Coudert Brothers recruited its associates from mainly Columbia, New York University, Harvard, Fordham, the University of Virginia, and the University of Pennsylvania.
Representative clients listed in the review included IBM, CBS, Time, Royal Dutch/Shell, Allied Chemical, Paine Webber, Chemical Bank, First Boston, Washington Post, Bendix Corporation, Ford Motor Company, Atlantic Richfield, Lanvin Parfums, Fiat, and the Japanese Nippon Electric Company Ltd. Overseas.
In 1994 the firm started a Mexico City office in association with the local firm Rios Ferrer y Guillen-LLarena, S.C. The Denver office opened in 1995. Coudert Brothers opened a Montreal office in 1997 in cooperation with a local firm of over 20 attorneys to assist clients doing business in Canada or Canadian clients that wanted to operate in other nations. To assist its Moscow office, the firm opened branches in St. Petersburg in 1996 and Almaty in 1998. Similarly, to assist clients in central and eastern Europe, it established a Berlin office in 1995 and one in Frankfurt in 1999. In 1998 Coudert Brothers opened an office in Palo Alto to aid clients in Silicon Valley.
The firm’s Asian practice expanded with new offices in Jakarta and Bangkok in 1990. After the Clinton administration ended the trade embargo against Vietnam, in place since the communists won the Vietnam War in 1975, Coudert Brothers opened offices in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in 1994.
The American Lawyer in its July/August 1998 rankings of the country’s 100 top law firms placed Coudert Brothers number 64, based on its 1997 gross revenues of $141 million. Divided among the firm’s 343 lawyers, revenue per lawyer was $410,000. The firm was not listed in the world’s 50 largest law firms in the first such ranking by the American Lawyer in November 1998.
In 1999 the firm employed about 235 lawyers in New York and its other North American offices, 170 in Europe, and another 120 in Asia and Australia. Although Coudert Brothers pioneered the creation of an international law firm, in the 1990s it faced tough competition in the foreign arena. For example, Chicago’s Baker & McKenzie, the world’s largest law firm, in 1998 was staffed by 2,300 lawyers, with 80 percent of those individuals based overseas in over 30 countries. Thirteen of the world’s 50 largest law firms were based in London. The point was that Coudert Brothers faced major challenges as the new century approached.
Cherovsky, Erwin, “Coudert Brothers,” in The Guide to New York Law Firms, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Veenswijk, Virginia Kays, Coudert Brothers: A Legacy in Law: The History of America’s First International Law Firm 1853–1993, New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton, 1994.
—David M. Walden