Leader

It seems like a wizard wheeze, but you can’t help wondering exactly how committed Freshfields is to this private equity lark.

Historically, the practice has been limited to Cinven, sustained largely through James Davis and, in a smaller way, Warburg Pincus, although relationship partner Philip Richards is now stationed in Italy.

Although there have been new jobs for several US houses, Freshfields’ strongest suit is the Bruckhaus private equity practice; it’s no coincidence that Chris Bown – up until recently the only bona fide private equity partner in Freshfields London – spent three months in Germany earlier this year.

As seems increasingly the case, London is playing second fiddle to Germany. Over there, Freshfields has one of the best private equity teams around, with dedicated partners Peter Nussbaum and Norbert Rieger in Munich, Andreas von Werder in Frankfurt and Anselm Raddatz in Düsseldorf. Their client list is stellar: Apax, Apollo, Carlyle Group, General Atlantic Partners and Permira to name a few. (Although I don’t advise the London partners to import their German colleagues’ habit of endlessly acting on competing bids.)

But the initiative raises a lot of questions. First the crucial one of finance capability – not just as borrower’s counsel on senior debt, but on high-yield. Freshfields has been wringing its hands on the sidelines of the finance market for years, with still no sign of any momentum.

Second, the group has assembled some good partners, but where is its visible internal sponsor? Compare with Graham White’s barnstorming debut at Linklaters, strongly supported by David Cheyne. It’s commendable that partners of the calibre of Patrick Gaynor, Laurie McFadden and Jeff Roberts are getting involved, but, notably, all three have just returned from overseas postings, so they don’t have to make any sacrifices in giving up a London client base.

Freshfields rarely attacks new practice areas; its famed cultivation of the investment banks for M&A was 20 years ago. This is not helped by the London end’s relative sniffiness about lateral hires – although the word is there’s a headhunter in the picture. There are times when an all-equity partnership inhibits risk-taking on the recruitment front.

In fact, Freshfields is going to have to work hard at convincing potential clients that it will still be in the game once public M&A returns. Linklaters’ private equity zeal is verging on the messianic, which is not the sense you get from Freshfields. A little bit of passion goes a long way.

catrin.griffiths@thelawyer.com