The Competition Commission and the Simmons maverick
17 March 2003
Finally the revolving door has spun around to the public sector and competition lawyers have got one of their own into the higher echelons of the Competition Comm-ission.
Simmons & Simmons head of competition Peter Freeman is the latest lawyer to invade the commission, and is the first competition star to seize the deputy chairman's job.
At first glance, the mergers regulator is hardly a lawyer-free zone; there is a tradition of lawyers joining as reporting members, most recently British American Tobacco's Stephen Walzer and Theodore Goddard's Diana Guy.
Freeman will be working alongside Denise Kingsmill, although he is a very different animal from her.
A former employment lawyer from DJ Freeman, Kingsmill is political and a populist - the regulator lawyers most love to hate. But given that lawyers and big business are hardly her natural constituency, the criticism will not keep her awake at night.
While Freeman isn't everyone's cup of tea, what is absolutely apparent is that he is a popular choice among competition lawyers.
He is what one lawyer calls "a highly respected senior citizen of competition law" - someone who's been practising in the field for as long as there has been a field. Freeman also has an academic pedigree, having penned competition law tomes with King's College professor Richard Whish.
The consensus is that Freeman will bring some much-needed rigour to the place. Certainly, he's clashed with the commission often enough in the past.
Freeman's first contact with the current Labour Government was in 1997, when he had persuaded the commission to allow the Carlsberg-Tetley merger, only for Margaret Beckett to come in and turn it down.
The Government has been obsessed with breweries ever since, but Simmons got its revenge on New Labour in 2001, overturning its decision on Interbrew. That pleasure fell to Freeman's second in command Martin Smith, but nobody would blame Freeman if he took the opportunity to indulge in a little schadenfreude.
Freeman is something of a maverick and as such not to everyone's taste. When asked to describe him, several competition lawyers muttered: "Well, he's got a lovely wife " (Mrs Freeman teaches law at Oxford and many of the younger generation of competition lawyers were taught by her.)
That said, there will be little need for Freeman to ingratiate himself with young competition lawyers in his role at the regulator.
A former commission insider thinks that Freeman is an excellent choice for the role. He says a key part of Freeman's job is to get the best out of commission members and staff, so perhaps the Simmons man is dusting down his diplomatic skills.
One thing that Freeman will not be doing is examining the Safeway deal. The commission has already announced that he will take no part if the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) refers the matter, because Freeman acts for Philip Green, one of five rivals interested in the supermarket chain.
The other big deal on the commission's plate at the moment has already been allocated. The third deputy commissioner Paul Geroski has been given the Carlton-Granada merger. Neither firm has commented on the choice, but it's a safe bet that Lovells and Slaughters are pleased to avoid peoples' champion Kingsmill.
So the Safeway job will go to either Kingsmill or commission chairman Sir Derek Morris. Morris did an inquiry into supermarket pricing a couple of years ago, so he is probably the odds on favourite for the job. However, Morris officially becomes the provost of Oriel College next spring, so he must fit Safeway in before his departure if he wants to go out with a bang.
What remains to be seen is whether Geroski, Kingsmill or Freeman goes for Morris's job when he leaves. A commission insider views Freeman, a personal friend of Morris, as the best internal replacement. Freeman, however, refused to comment on his ambitions, saying that he hasn't even started on the learning curve required for his current job. In fact, he says he "wouldn't rule out revolving back to the private sector eventually".
Without him, it is thought that Simmons' competition team will struggle to maintain its profile. However, Freeman points out that "we regard that as a perception matter". In fact, he says his move is being seen as a "thoroughly good thing" by his firm. One high-profile lawyer says he would continue to refer cases to Simmons regardless. However, the consensus is that the rest of the firm's lawyers, with the exception of Smith, now have something to prove.
Almost uniquely among the top City firms, Simmons gains little from its corporate practice. While other firms such as Herbert Smith and Lovells have strong standalone competition practices, they do get a fair bit of help from their corporate friends. To Freeman's credit, he and his team built an independent client base without major corporate cross-fertilisation.
A Simmons insider says that, historically, there have been internal tensions over this. Apparently, Freeman tried to take the bulk of his team to join Chris Bright at Clifford Chance a couple of years ago, but the mass lateral fell at the final hurdle.
Freeman dismisses this as market rumour, but competition lawyers are at a premium and, should they now wish to move individually, Simmons competition lawyers could expect a pretty penny. Certainly far more than the £110,000 public sector wage Freeman will get.