Revolution in the air at Freshfields

Next week hundreds of Freshfields alumni will all get together for a big party. They may not recognise the firm they left.

First there’s a contested senior partner election to replace Anthony Salz. Then chief executive Hugh Crisp announces he is going to stand down at the end of the year. It means that in six months time the firm will have an entirely new management team – but nobody knows who yet. That is an alarming state of affairs for a £780m-turnover business. And today we reveal that Freshfields has spent £4m in just one quarter to pay off departing partners. It’s a revolution over there.

Freshfields partners are completely spooked by Linklaters‘ return to form. When Linklaters announced that its profits were up by 25 per cent to £843,000 this year, Freshfields partners were horrified. They had barely scraped £700,000. Suddenly the hawks had the upper hand.

A few weeks ago we examined the ambitions of Freshfields’ very own Notting Hill set of Tim Jones, Mark Rawlinson, Will Lawes and Ed Braham. They decided they had to transform the corporate department before it became entirely moribund. New finance head Perry Noble is doing the same in finance, while Andreas Fabritius is reforming the German corporate practice.

But this isn’t just about departmental groups and client care; the subtext is that the firm is genuinely over-partnered. If you think that £4m was a one-off payment, think again. This is going to last for another 18 months.

Radicalism is in the air at this most consensual of firms. Many Freshfields partners privately admit that lockstep is doomed in the long run. One of the reasons the Thai practice was axed was that the firm could simply not justify paying lockstep to its Bangkok partners. “They were the highest earning people in the whole of Thailand,” says one Freshfields partner ruefully.

Whoever succeeds Crisp as chief executive will have to have the stomach to push through a mass cull of partners. Many Freshfields insiders are predicting that up to 50 partners will go if they are going to make room for any promotions into the equity.

So who will get the chief executive job? The corporate big beasts are happy where they are. Steely new finance head Perry Noble is being touted by some, but he has plenty on his plate at the moment. Actually, if you speak to Freshfields partners, there’s only one ideal candidate, and that’s Tony Angel. They’re not joking.