Freshfields super-dealmaker O’Brien retires – to do more deals

After 30 years in the City, you might think that a corporate partner would want to put his or her feet up. This is not the case  at Freshfields. 

Over the last six months no fewer than four high-profile partners have landed plum roles outside the magic circle firm. First came former managing partner Ted Burke, who joined private equity house Arclight Capital. Then in October corporate partner and former London head Tim Jones stepped down from the partnership to join England Rugby 2015 and in November The Lawyer revealed that private equity head Chris Bown was to join client CVC in a part-time role. 

And now it’s time for Freshfields’ best-known dealmaker to hand in his doorpass. Barry O’Brien is retiring from the magic circle firm today (31 March) to join US investment bank Jefferies as head of European M&A and corporate finance on 1 April. The role, which will be on a part-time basis, will focus on client development.

“The role is mainly around being able to have high-level boardroom discussions,” says O’Brien. “Since their takeover of Hoare Govett they now they have upwards of 30 listed clients but not enough senior people to have the conversations with them, so they’ll be asking me to put my pads on.”

Unlike Bown with CVC, Jones with his post-2012 sporting links and Burke with Arclight Capital, Jefferies was not a client of O’Brien’s before he was approached. O’Brien denies working too hard on his post-legal practice plans, but warns others in his position that they need to do some thinking in advance.  

“Some guys who are due to retire haven’t done a great deal about it,” he says. “They’ve got to get on with it – it’s easier to build your portfolio when you’ve got a freshfields.com email, it’s much more difficult to do with from btconnect.com.”

O’Brien, who was once dubbed a ‘superhero’ by his corporate partners, joined Freshfields in 1984 as a five-year qualified assistant solicitor from Slaughter and May, where he had played on the Slaughters rugby team with Nigel Boardman. He made partner two years later.

In 2006, when the magic circle firm was undergoing a prolonged restructure, O’Brien stepped down from the equity partnership for two years but continued to work full-time. During that time he weathered a storm over a conflict of interest following the firm’s role on Philip Green’s bid for M&S. He was voted back into the equity partnership in 2008. 

O’Brien became a consultant in October 2013 but continued to fee-earn for the firm in his last year of practice. He led a team advising Invensys on its £3.4bn takeover by Schneider Electric at the end of 2013, and advised the ENRC executive committee on the bid to take the company private.

During his time in the City, says O’Brien, M&A lawyering has changed drastically, particularly with the demise of the hostile bid. But technology has made things rather faceless, he mourns.

”These days deals are done remotely, either by conference call or email and I think junior lawyers are missing out,” he reflects. “Also, in downtime the technology wasn’t there, you were waiting for a messenger to deliver something by hand. Stuck in that room I built up some incredible relationships with investment bankers.

“Nowadays the deal gets done and they [the lawyers] may not even have met the client team. It’s difficult for associates and junior partners to try and engineer those opportunities because it comes across as naked marketing and some of our very best lawyers don’t feel comfortable doing that.”

It’s not just M&A that has changed. The competitive landscape in private practice has altered dramatically.

“I hate sporting analogies,” says O’Brien, “but it’s like Premiership football – those at the top get ever stronger and the others get weaker. I fear that is happening in the legal world – though it will create opportunities for smaller focused firms to reinvent themselves. We’ve got the gunpowder and we can make investments, can hire half a dozen people, say, in New York without worrying too much.”

The son of a Cardiff docker (“it never held me back”), O’Brien has championed social mobility and community schemes within the firm. He will continue to look after the firm’s relationship with Haggerston school, in Hackney, where he is chair of governors, as well as the relationship with UCL.

O’Brien was a driving force behind Freshfields’ decision to set up a £10,000-a-year bursary for UCL law students from socially and economically less privileged backgrounds.