Opinion: Colonial management is destroying German firms

Heads of UK firms with German offices met a couple of years ago to determine that they ought to hold their respective German affiliates on a much shorter leash.

London-based managing partners of UK law firms with German offices met, not so secretly, a couple of years ago to determine that they ought to hold their respective German affiliates on a much shorter leash for profitability’s sake.

It was no accident, therefore, that German Linklaters partners were thus far considered worthy of much less pay than their UK counterparts.

There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part, London-based firms have assumed a colonial posture of micro-management and all but destroyed the backbone of, and continue to wreak havoc on, the German legal market and have all but annihilated independent German legal services practices and firms.

It takes two to tango and it is no accident that a lack of professional sure-footedness and self-esteem on the part of many otherwise solid German firms have led them into these bizarre marriages that assume Darwinian proportions of struggle for survival.

Virtually every partner more than 53 years old is asked to leave, no matter how productive, wise and respected. It doesn’t matter that clients appreciate their services and clamour for stable human relationships, the emphasis on youth and folly prevails.

Does youth fare better? One in 20 associates make partnership or counsel. The rest fall by the wayside, allegedly because “some sort of shadow fell on them”, or “they fell off the ladder”, or, euphemistically, “if you trim the fat you have to cut into the muscle”.

Too many of them fell victim to the deception of a London address on the letterhead as a substitute for a cosmopolitan, strategic mindset in their own heads.

Emphasis on client services, mentoring and friendships, as well as the internal fabric and cohesion, no longer exist at such behemoths as Linklaters. Most clients are considered as institutional givens, served on a silver platter to the in-crowd for billing credit and points.

Client service has become a lip-service and fig-leaf for redistribution of power and money to a younger generation that never knew how to turn a stranger into an acquaintance, an acquaintance into a friend and a friend into a client. Meritocracy has given way to being politically correct, or at least politically astute.

Being a client-getter has become a bad word. Independent thought and action worthy of a professional, world-class lawyer have fallen by the wayside. Minions and lemming-like obedience and nightmarish homogeneity are the order of the day. Ever heard of the hamster spinning the wheel? Absurdity knocks clear and loud.

The old Albion virtues of stratification and exclusion of the rest of us have remained unchanged: divide and conquer. Such divisions are currently plaguing Linklaters in Cologne.

This is just another example among myriads that have rocked the German legal profession since the year 2000 and shutting down an entire office is simply a ‘cold’ de-equitisation (some say the destruction of a legal tradition) parading as rational decision-making on part of the London elite; in fact, it signals simply another turn for the worse and symbolises a deplorable decay of our profession.

Was it truly necessary? That would not happen at Bredin Prat, Hengeler Mueller, Macfarlanes, Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett or Slaughter and May – the few culturally steadfast shining examples of camaraderie.

Boden Oppenhoff in Cologne was once one of our celebrated practices, revolving around such great minds as Walter Oppenhoff and Georg Maier-Reimer, two of our country’s leading lawyers.

As Linklaters London has become a fearsome money-machine, our Cologne friends – those who do not wish to relocate to Düsseldorf – should keep their heads high and provide the most effective response that always sticks: be successful on your own and keep up the principles of collegiality and mentorship to younger colleagues.

This was once the hallmark of Walter Oppenhoff, who taught many of us beyond his firm and legacy so wisely about the practise of law. Dear Walter, what have they done to your law firm?

Ami de Chapeaurouge, founding partner, de Chapeaurouge & Partner