Freshfields’ election: the more things change, the more they stay the same

In restructuring its management team, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has brought its management system in line with those adopted by its magic circle peers, while at the same
time ensuring there will be ­practically no change to the way the firm is run.

As reported on The last week (29 September), the firm’s partners opted to install former financial institutions head Will Lawes as senior partner; chief executive Ted Burke’s role is being redefined and rebadged as managing partner; the firm has created the post of general counsel and given it to current managing partner Peter Jeffcote, who at 62 will reach the firm’s retirement age of 65 before the new management terms come to an end; and it has created the role of executive partner for Cologne-based global tax chief Stephan ­Eilers.

Despite the changes, the senior partner election – the outcome of which would have been practically the same regardless of who actually won – failed to ­create much of a stir among the firm’s partners.

On the day before the winner was unveiled one partner in the firm’s corporate practice said he was utterly underwhelmed about the impending announcement, adding: “This ­election’s failed to create any waves within the firm.”

A partner in the litigation group agreed, admitting that he had not attended any of the hustings and was unconcerned about who the ultimate victor would be.

Yet this was less a rare ­display of apathy from a firm that boasts of being one of the most collegiate in the City, and more a recognition that the partners supported both candidates equally. Which is just as well, given that if Burke had won he would have installed Eilers as his managing partner, with Lawes also featuring on his top-level team.

Burke, understandably, is gracious in defeat. “I’m excited to be managing partner,” he said. “It’s a nice mix of some old parts of the job and some new.”

Lawes is equally genial about trumping Burke in the election. “Beat,” he insisted, “is the wrong word.”

In truth Burke, who made no secret of the fact he would have stood unopposed to replace joint incumbents Konstantin Mettenheimer and Guy Morton as senior partner, is better suited
to the managing partner ­position, carrying as it does responsibility for the day-to-day running of the firm. Despite the new title, Burke’s job will for the large part remain unchanged.

“I never liked the chief executive title because it didn’t seem partnerial,” said Burke. “People would say, ’Are you a lawyer?’, which I hated. It would have seemed odd to change it part way through the term, but this was an opportunity to change the role a bit.”

Essentially, under the new structure Burke will hand control of the financial and operational aspects of ­management to Eilers, ­giving Burke more time to focus on client-facing work.
“I wanted to focus on strategy and client development work,” said Burke.

Lawes, who has stepped down as co-head of the firm’s financial institutions group (FIG), will continue to fee-earn in his highly ­successful practice while becoming a senior partner in the traditional sense.

“My partners are very happy for me to carry on seeing my clients, including working on matters where I can make a difference,” said Lawes. “Broadly we’re in good shape internationally, so the senior partner role is now really about revenue and people.”

While Eilers is not as well known in the UK as the rest of the management team, due to him being part way through his second term as global tax head (a role he will relinquish before taking up his new position on 1 January 2011), his profile is nevertheless high within the firm.

According to Burke, anyone who has met Eilers will recognise his suitability for the executive partner role, while Lawes said: “He’s fantastic in matters financial.”

He would certainly seem to be cut out for the role – as a Deringer Tessin Herrmann & Sedemund partner he helped broker the firm’s 2000 merger with Freshfields and the subsequent tie-up with Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Loeber.

Soundings are currently being taken about finding a replacement for Eilers as tax head, as well as for Lawes as FIG co-head, with the roles being conferred by the management team rather than through a partnership vote.

In the meantime Lawes and Eilers will spend the time between now and ­January getting client matters into order for when they take up their positions in the new-look management team.

With Burke and Lawes both vowing to serve single five-year terms in their new positions, the 2015 management contest should be a more lively affair than this year’s. Expect competition partner Deirdre Trapp or employment partner ­Caroline Stroud – or indeed both – to feature.