A View from Germany

Of course, everybody over here is talking about Freshfields and Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Löber. How did Peck and Salz pull it out of the bag after only a 63% vote for in April? Just what concessions did Bruckhaus big hitters Voss, Epe, Wilde and Horvath wring out of a City firm whose march through continental Europe had, up to that point, been unstoppable?

No one doubts that a corporate powerhouse has now been created. Even without the London back-up, the combination of the experts in stock corporation law from Bruckhaus’ Düsseldorf office together with Freshfields Deringers’ outstanding market position in the deregulated industries is enough to make any other German firm shudder.

In particular, FBD (as it is already being called – which does make one of Europe’s premier law firms sound uncannily like a minor German political party) has three times as many lawyers in this market as Hengeler Mueller Weitzel Wirtz. Anti-trust lawyers elsewhere thought that they might at least benefit from the conflicts between two of the leading competition practices. But these hopes were dashed when it emerged that the initial idea for the merger came from Brussels’ lawyers. It was they who apparently first broached the idea to their firms’ management with the exclamation: “Zusammen sind wir unschlagbar!” -“Together we are unbeatable!”

Given the shock waves which ran through the market last week, it is understandable that the other notable merger – White & Case with Feddersen Laule Ewerwahn Scherzberg Finkelnburg Clemm – has not been on everybody’s lips. Feddersens scored a notable PR coup (much to the severe annoyance of Bruckhaus and Deringer partners) by managing to hit the newsstands on the same day as its rivals. But despite the relative even-handedness of the reports in the national press, the emergence of White & Case, Feddersen has become the talk of the bars in Frankfurt only on account of the idiosyncratic punctuation in its name.

That is a pity. Feddersens can never be said to have the same corporate reputation as Bruckhaus. But with one leap it has access to an acquisition finance practice that certain Bruckhaus partners can only dream of (which is ironic, considering it was the Bruckhaus finance practice that was instrumental in pushing through the Freshfields merger).

Feddersens could never match the combined IPO team of Deringer and Bruckhaus, but its huge Hamburg office is delighted to find that its host of powerful, high-spending Scandinavian clients that have been major investors in Germany over the past 10 years, are already being served in Sweden and Finland by White & Case.

And finally, the real crunch. White & Case may not be a white shoe firm, but next to Freshfields’ US capability, it looks pretty smart. There is much speculation who Freshfields might be speaking to in New York, and no one in Germany doubts that it can pull a top 10 firm out of the hat over the next two years, but as one wily White & Case lawyer puts it: “Let’s see them do it first.”

Even then, there is one firm which is further down the line towards such a merger than FBD. It has been criticised for being too academic and too conservative. But investment bankers in Frankfurt already talk about it as a transatlantic unit. As one senior Clifford Chance Pünder lawyer puts it: “Nobody should be fooled by the line that Hengeler Mueller put out. That stuff about being an independent law firm with best friends is pure bullshit.” He adds with a foreboding tone: “All they have to do if they want to merge with Slaughters and Davis Polk is push the button.”

What is as yet unclear is whether that button lights up any lamps in London and New York.

Aled Griffiths is editor of the German legal news magazine, JUVE Rechtsmarkt. He can be contacted at aled.griffiths@juve.de