Voting for the senior partner role at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer got underway this week, with partners at the firm finding it hard to separate the two candidates.
Current chief executive Ted Burke and financial institutions group (FIG) chief Will Lawes have for some time been the only names in the frame to replace outgoing joint senior partners Konstantin Mettenheimer and Guy Morton.
Last week’s partnership conference in Paris gave the prospective leaders the chance to outline their plans for the firm, but the battle is unlikely to be won or lost over the differences in their manifestos.
“You couldn’t get a cigarette paper between them,” one senior Freshfields figure commented last week in advance of the Paris hustings.
In fact partners at the magic circle firm seem happy that there is little internecine squabbling over who is to lead them for the next five years.
“It’s not been the most hard-fought of elections,” admits another Freshfields partner. “Whoever gets elected, it can’t be a bad result for us.”
While there may be little to choose in terms of immediate changes, the differing personalities of the contenders – said to be firm friends – could have a more significant impact over time.
“They’re like chalk and cheese,” says one former Freshfields partner. “Ted’s a technocrat – he’s able and effective, if a little mechanical. But he’s a highly efficient organiser and manager.”
Another Freshfields partner adds: “Ted’s been an incredibly successful chief executive officer because he’s had a good strategic vision. On the other hand, Will’s got incredible charm and has a senior partner persona.”
But there is some doubt about whether Burke, whose tenure as CEO has been widely viewed as a success both within and without the firm, has the necessary attributes to morph into the new role.
“It depends on what you think a senior partner job is,” continues the former colleague. “If it’s about providing leadership and guidance then maybe Will would be better suited.”
The feeling is that Lawes’ more recent experience of working with clients could help address a concern among some partners that the firm can improve the way it nurtures relationships.
“It’s a transactional firm and clients know that,” says another former partner. “Will’s closer to clients than Ted; it’s hard to understate how well-regarded he is inside and outside the firm.”
But this Freshfields alumnus disagrees that either candidate is the one to change the model of the firm to one that puts its arms round clients in the way that magic circle rival Linklaters is perceived as doing.
“Everyone in management is incredibly internally focused,” adds the partner. “It’s often more about supporting partners than clients.”
Whether or not that is the case, Freshfields’ financial performance during the recession has been markedly better than those of its immediate competitors.
The effect of this is that few seem to want to rock the boat. Several high-profile candidates were mentioned when Mettenheimer and Morton chose to call time on their tenures – London corporate head Mark Rawlinson, London managing partner Tim Jones and competition star Deirdre Trapp among them – but none threw their hat into the ring.
Some intrigue was injected into the race last week when it emerged that Burke would carry on as CEO if Lawes’ campaign was successful (TheLawyer.com, 15 September) .
Burke, meanwhile, has nominated Cologne-based global head of tax Stephan Eilers as his prospective CEO.
The move surprised many, who thought that Burke was slight favourite for the senior partner role – a position that could be undermined if partners know he will continue in management even if unelected.
If he does win, with Eilers alongside him on the ticket, there could also be calls for the introduction of a London senior partner.
“If [Burke wins] they’d have to have someone running London,” muses a partner at another magic circle firm.
While the election to become the first solo senior partner at one of the world’s biggest firms will be watched intently by the market, the contest appears to be relatively amicable.
“They’re both obviously ambitious,” continues the partner, “but they don’t have sharp elbows.”