Senior partner race throws up six of Freshfields’ global stars

Last weekend nearly 500 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer partners convened at the Novotel Tour Eiffel in Paris to hear six candidates on the hustings for senior partner, followed by a Q&A session chaired by Hamburg partner Michael Haidinger.

As first revealed by www.thelawyer. com (5 October), the six partners standing are UK corporate partners Graham Nicholson, Barry O’Brien and Philip Richards, UK regulatory partner Guy Morton, former Paris managing partner Jean-Luc Michaud and current co-senior partner Konstantin Mettenheimer.

However, the shape of the election process is uncertain. It looks set to be drawn out; although the new senior partner should be in situ by the end of the calendar year to effect a smooth handover, there is as yet no date for a vote.

There is also heated debate within Freshfields as to whether it should retain a dual senior partner role at all. The role was brought in in the wake of the Anglo-German merger to ease tensions.

As the only German partner among the candidates, Mettenheimer has the best chance. “You’d have thought that the Germans are pretty organised behind him,” says a London partner. “I think you can assume that Konstantin will still be playing a part in this fine firm.”

Mettenheimer is also thought to have done a good job as co-senior partner for the last few years. With Anthony Salz increasingly semi-detached, Mett-enheimer has been more increasingly visible, both internally and externally. And for political reasons alone, as the sole representative of nearly half the firm, the Frankfurt partner is assured of a place in the final round. One London partner says: “I think a lot of us think it would be nice to have a single senior partner, but the reality is, it’s not going to be possible.”

However, that view is not shared by Michaud. Alone of the six, he is standing on a sole senior partner ticket. Although well respected among the hierarchy, his stance on this issue and the fact that he does not belong to either of the big factions makes him more of an outsider. “There are two voting blocs – German and English,” says an observer. “Neither are going to vote for a Frenchman.”

O’Brien’s reappearance has surprised some, who thought that the ebullient Welshman had been elbowed aside after the Marks & Spencer takeover bid disaster. However, the former head of corporate still engenders much loyalty inside and outside his department.

One partner says: “He believes in relationship lawyering – he gets into boardrooms. How many of the rest of them do?” However, O’Brien polarises opinion like no other candidate. Another partner comments: “He wears his heart on his sleeve – he attracts the most extremes, either in support or opposition.”

Nicholson has had management experience, having been managing partner for four years in the 1990s. Since then he has worked in the corporate and financial institutions sector. Seen by some as a possible compromise candidate, Nicholson is a direct contemporary of Salz.

Regulatory specialist Morton, whose key clients include the Bank of England, has won many supporters during his role as a senior non-exec on the partnership council. “In a meeting room everyone shuts up when he starts to speak,” says a partner who knows him well. “He’s seen as very fair and wise.”

The maverick in the election is Richards, the former managing partner of Italy and has recently returned to London. “He’s extremely clubbable, but some see him as a bit of a poser,” observes one partner. “He used to wear a trilby to the office.”

However, several partners say Richards’ time in Milan has made a difference. “He’s learnt a lot,” comments one. Another says: “People always used to say he should get his ‘reply to all’ button surgically removed. But he’s more diplomatic now – he’s mellowed. And he’s got definite fizz. He’s also got the advantage of having worked in an overseas office, so he doesn’t just have a London perspective.”

Noticeable for their absence are the other Freshfields big beasts: Tim Jones, Mark Rawlinson and Deirdre Trapp have all been pressurised to stand, but have displayed no appetite for the post.

The senior partner role at Freshfields is not simply titular. Upon their election, the senior partner may nominate a fresh management team entirely. Any one of the six could, should they desire, completely change the balance of power within the firm.

Given what a vocal minority of partners view as a vacuum at the heart of central management in the last two years, the senior partner election injects a distinct element of danger into the status quo. “This election has to be representative of where the firm is going to go,” says one partner darkly.