A striking match

Rudolf Cölle starts off well. When I arrive to talk to him, the senior partner of Linklater Oppenhoff & Rädler is busy studying my interview from the previous week’s The Lawyer, complete with my byline picture featuring a Hugh Grantesque floppy haircut.

However, since an encounter with an overambitious pair of scissors, the flop is no more. Cölle is intently studying the picture. He looks up at me, then looks back to the picture. After a dramatic pause, he declares that he prefers the reality. Bless this man and his flattery.

Cölle reminds me of someone, but I can’t for the life of me think who it is. The only way I can explain this feeling is that he’s like a US actor playing a role such as the President’s closest adviser. The type of role where you think he’s the baddie but then he dramatically saves the President’s life while simultaneously unmasking the real villain. If anyone can follow my drift and come up with the name, I would be grateful.

It’s not just his looks that recall to mind a Presidential aide. Cölle has an elder statesman quality about him, scrutinising his subject, rather than simply looking. He portrays a stark contrast to the easy approachability and warmth of his managing partner Markus Hartung.

With eyes slightly narrowed, he seems to be constantly appraising you, and while it is not assured that you’ll fail the test, there is a possibility that you might not pass muster. Cölle also has a habit of pausing mid-thought, leaving me unsure whether or not to bash on with the next question or leave him to finish. Many times I make the wrong call and Cölle raises his voice to talk over the question, while continuing with his previous answer. Rather in the manner of a teacher talking over a lippy pupil.

Cölle was the negotiating partner who brought his firm, Oppenhoff & Rädler, under the Linklaters umbrella, first as a member of its alliance and then through to full merger.

Now, under the structure adopted as part of the merger process, he acts as senior partner – a position relatively alien to German law firms, where partnerships are much smaller and less hierarchical than they are in the UK.
Until recently, the position was held by Michael Oppenhoff, the son of founder Walter, who stepped down after seeing his father’s firm married off to its English suitor.

Cölle is quietly pleased with his role. “I know my partners. I think and I know their practices and what they like to do, so I think I can really understand,” he says. “A senior partner is just to help, maybe to push sometimes. From down, up – not from up, down.”

From an outsider’s viewpoint, Oppenhoffs’ marriage to Linklaters has not been without its dramas. By Cölle’s own reckoning, almost 40 partners from the original 116 have left since it became clear that the merger would go ahead.

But Oppenhoffs was populated with such generous spirits that Cölle says even those opposed to staying in a merged firm voted for the merger because they saw it as being in the firm’s best interest.

“I think that if you go into a merger you have to have a basic acceptance of what you’re doing,” he says. “You can’t go in as a partner saying, ‘I don’t want to do it’, and then do it. [The alternative of] the financial package we have for partners who would not feel comfortable with a merged firm was very good.”

A large part of the partner exodus was connected to a perception that the firm was shaving off non-core areas to fit closer with the Linklaters vision, although Cölle insists this view is misguided.

“As to those partners who left, I think first there’s a misconception about what is a core area. If you know Linklaters well, you’re always surprised that whatever area it practises in, it’s among the market leaders. My firm belief is that if you’re among the market leaders in your practice area – whatever that is – it will almost certainly be profitable.”

Nevertheless, there have been departures accompanied by complaints that Linklaters is so in love with what the Frankfurt office has to offer that the Cologne, Berlin and Munich offices are ignored. US firm Hogan & Hartson did particularly well out of this perception, taking 12 partners from the Berlin office. It is also interesting to note – if, as Cölle claims, there was no pressure from Linklaters to ease out non-core areas – that no banking and “not many” corporate partners have left.

Cölle shows little sadness at the number of partners who have gone, and instead proffers perhaps the ultimate proof that he was right to push the firm towards merger: despite all the departures, he expects both turnover and profits to be higher than last year.

This has been achieved through greater focus. Less time has been spent, he says, on discussion and debate. “We focus on the really premium and other target clients, and we have a structured approach to the work,” he comments.

So the firm has greater focus but has not decided to abandon non-key areas. I’m no management consultant, but I sense a slight discrepancy in that.

Additionally, since the merger, the firm’s gearing has gone up – it was once virtually one partner to one assistant, but Cölle is strangely reluctant to talk about this.

Otherwise, he says, business is as usual – the firm has adapted very well to the merger and all is tickety-boo. The firm was always hard-working, and so the hours haven’t changed – although its already sophisticated hours and billing system is now even better. Marriage has changed nothing.

Cölle, I think, is slightly bemused by me. As well as becoming familiar with more formal management structures, German lawyers are also having to get used to the press.

While legal journals exist in Germany, they tend to be more academically orientated and less news-based than your favourite read, The Lawyer. So I am treading carefully on the side of asking Cölle about the firm, rather than himself. I fear that if I suddenly start to pry into Cölle the man, he will clam up. So I avoid the subject.

But someone from London has obviously pre-warned him, because at the end of the interview he narrows his eyes and says that I have not asked anything about him. He is obviously disappointed, so I ask.

Just for the record, he likes art and music – the latter of which he enjoys along with some of the London partners. His favourite artistic period is the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century.

But even after these sudden revelations, I dare not ask whether or not he likes the cinema and if he knows the name of his doppelgänger.
Rudolf Colle
Senior partner
Linklater Oppenhoff & Radler