Leader

Freshfields may be desperate to avoid the bruising senior partner election that Clifford Chance went through, but it’s only deferring the pain. Despite all this talk of consensus and soundings, there’s a lot of politics in the Freshfields election.

The man who has ’emerged’ as putative co-senior partner with Anthony Salz is Konstantin Mettenheimer, a 48-year-old tax specialist from Frankfurt, who has been managing partner of Germany for several years. Mettenheimer is probably the most likely person to unite the bickering German offices. Or rather, he’s the person least likely to exacerbate the tensions between them. Because what’s behind Mettenheimer’s elevation is a ‘Stop Düsseldorf’ campaign.

Düsseldorf – highly profitable, but along traditional German lines of very low leverage – is a headache for Freshfields’ global management. Its business model is nowhere near in sync with the rest of the Anglo-German practice. Even worse, Düsseldorf partners are openly reluctant to toe the party line on the issue.

Which brings us to Ralph Wollburg, the Düsseldorf heavyweight who was also in the running for senior partner. Much like Michael Pescod at Slaughter and May a couple of years back, Wollburg is the grit in the oyster. He may be corporate kingpin, but the idea of his having management responsibility filled certain London partners with horror.

Compared with Düsseldorf, Frankfurt is a lot closer to the UK in its business model. You could even argue that Mettenheimer (whisper it) was London’s man. The only problem: it leaves Freshfields with a massive hole for German managing partner. The most obvious candidate, Ludwig Leyendecker, has only just re-embraced fee-earning, while other partners are simply too wedded to their own regional constituencies.

Meanwhile, someone else has been… er… ’emerging’ in London. Freshfields’ management has made it abundantly clear that Hugh Crisp – understated, bright, but not widely known within the firm – is to succeed Alan Peck as chief executive. Yet it must be worrying that there doesn’t seem to be a single other person who wants to do the job, which seems to spell out a horrifying lack of ambition within the partnership. Doesn’t anyone at Freshfields want to lead anymore?

And the biggest decision for Freshfields? It’s who will succeed Anthony Salz in a couple of years. As one partner notes: “It can’t be a German, and it can’t be a Brit.” Step forward, Paris chief Jean-Luc Michaud. That really will be the test of Freshfields’ internationalism.