Meeting a new management team for the first time is always slightly icky. All that compulsory joviality and knee-slapping, along with the sort of pre-assigned body language that just shouts: “Look at us! We’re such a great team! We have such fantastic chemistry!” Almost as if leadership can be measured out in punchlines.
And naturally enough, this is exactly the case with Taylor Wessing. Wolfgang Rehmann and Gary Moss, respectively the German and UK managing partners of the newest Anglo-German firm on the block, are obviously still at that ultra-pally stage, and the sheen of the first six months of their merger is not yet coarsened by familiarity.
You get an inkling of this when the issue of French capability – or lack of it – is raised. It is a glaring hole in that pan-European offering that Taylor Wessing is so keen on marketing to their US clients and referral firms. So what about Paris, chaps? “It’s a nice place,” they both chorus, word-perfect; and then, rather alarmingly, giggle like a couple of schoolgirls.
They seem startlingly different characters. Rehmann has evident charm and energy; Moss, well… Moss has a moustache. If you want to trade in stereotypes, then Moss comes across a lot more grimly Germanic than Rehmann, whose enthusiasm seems unbounded.
Despite their chuckles, Paris will be a major priority this year. As The Lawyer reported last week, the firm is aiming to have a merger in place by the end of this year and has stationed Hamburg partner Axel Filges there. His job may be helped by Rehmann’s own French connections – the German managing partner is close to Patrick Dunaud of Sokolow Dunaud Mercadier & Carreras.
But then, Taylor Wessing partners are used to moving fast. Taylor Joynson Garrett (TJG) usurped Bird & Bird‘s position as Wessing’s favoured merger candidate pretty speedily, pulling off the deal in a matter of months.
Amid the roar and clamour of the last couple of years, Wessing’s saving grace – and why it was so attractive to TJG – was its newfound focus as a tech firm, rooted in its traditional intellectual property (IP) practice.
“The driving force for the three founding firms was strong IP departments,” says Rehmann. “And strong corporate departments,” he adds hastily. Like Moss, who is a patent litigator by background, Rehmann himself has always been an IP lawyer, although you get the impression that Rehmann in particular was not consumed by personal ambition. On the contrary, he seems happy to foster the impression that his current position is due to luck. “I was extremely young when I started off [in the law],” he says. “I started at 26 instead of the normal age in Germany of 30, and I hadn’t a clear perspective of what I wanted to do.”
Moss, in his cool and measured fashion, is happy to let the ebullient Rehmann do much of the talking, but despite their lighthearted joshing, the two wield considerable power within the firm. Along with the rest of the 10-strong management board – evenly split between the UK and German practices – Moss and Rehmann have a pretty free hand in running the place. Decision-making resides entirely in the management team, which needs no ratification from any partnership council.
What is more, the integration is decidedly top-down. Moss admits that there is no extensive secondment programme as yet sorted out; although Rehmann adds that the firm has held a training weekend for German and UK corporate and IP partners – something he dubs the “Taylor Wessing academy”.
Rehmann and Moss insist that their priorities are practice group integration first and financial integration second. Profits are still doled out separately, not least because Wessing accounts on a cash basis and TJG on accruals. “It’s very difficult, for tax reasons,” adds Moss.
So far the firms’ separate figures are looking healthy. If Rehmann is particularly bouncy today, then Wessing’s year-end results (the German end of Taylor Wessing works on a calendar basis) have probably contributed to his mood. He does not like to go into specifics, but turnover is up 10 per cent to around £44m, and profits have remained steady, at around £250,000 per equity partner.
The two have a tricky task ahead: keeping true to the two firms’ distinctive cultures but beginning to meld a new one. You can see this exemplified in the discussion of leverage, an issue that has bedevilled UK firms in Germany. Moss and Rehmann insist that there is no will to make the German leverage ratio (the number of assistants to equity partners) conform to an Anglo-Saxon model. As you might expect, German ratio is considerably lower than that of the UK.
Rehmann vows that the rate will never surpass a 2:1 ratio in Germany. “It’s part of our joint philosophy that, if you want a partner-led service in Germany, your possibilities for leverage are limited,” he says. And this sells well to the client.”
Speaking to the two men, you almost get the sense that they are pleasantly surprised at how smoothly things have gone thus far. They may not choose to admit it now, but the merger between the two firms was a leap of faith on both sides. Wessing had suffered terrible turmoil. Like so many German firms, it was the product of a four-way merger, made up of practices in Düsseldorf (the most dominant practice), Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg. There were huge cultural problems and integrating the firms took years. “In the end it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed, but I wish it had been a bit quicker,” says Rehmann, rather ruefully.
Through various defections, Düsseldorf’s influence has waned and the firm is better balanced. Rehmann himself is from the Munich end, while Andreas Meissner – who along with Rehmann runs the German practice – is from the Hamburg office.
And what of Wolfgang von Meibom, the forceful former Düsseldorf-based managing partner of Wessing? What does Rehmann feel about the man who had been running the firm – and had cracked so many heads together – only to leave with a team to join Andersen, and then Bird & Bird? Rehmann pauses for the first time in the entire interview. “We saw him on the plane,” he offers. “At a certain stage he did things I didn’t appreciate. We don’t run into them though. There’s not much opportunity for private dinners.” At which point Moss and Rehmann laugh again, but the tension hovers, just for a while.
In the meantime, both admit that there is still plenty of work to be done in bolstering the German practice – and Taylor Wessing is on a recruitment drive. “Being full-service and being tech-orientated, we do want to compete on M&A deals,” confesses Rehmann. “And it goes without saying we need a strong corporate department in Frankfurt. We’ve already built up again in Düsseldorf.”
Rehmann and Moss are embarking on a pioneering strategy that is very different to those of other law firms: to build an international practice based for the most part on technology and IP. There is no successful template for them to follow, and the example of the overstretched and overwrought Brobeck Phleger & Harrison is not a happy one. But at the moment Taylor Wessing seems well enough placed thanks to its solid corporate practice. It is better hedged than Bird & Bird and a darn sight more international than Olswang, whose only foray outside London so far has been the screamingly opportunistic takeover of Garretts’ Reading office.
Although Rehmann and Moss inevitably stress the joint approach, and although Rehmann is clearly the more natural marketer, the UK side is still the senior partner of the enterprise. Take the name Taylor Wessing, with Wessing pronounced after the English, not the German, fashion. Apparently, it’s easier for Americans to say. How many layers of symbolism do you need?
Wolfgang Rehmann and Gary Moss