Earlier this year, while trekking in the remote Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, Schoenherr managing partner Christoph Lindinger had an exchange with an islander he will never forget.
With news reaching him of the financial turmoil back in Europe, Lindinger asked the man if he had heard about the crisis. “What crisis?” the man replied. “When we see a crisis we run into the bush.”
This could not have been further from Lindinger’s experiences in Vienna, where his Austria-based firm is fully embroiled in the race to be the dominant player in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).
With 12 offices and 316 fee-earners, Schoenherr is pitched against larger Austrian rival Wolf Theiss. The race also puts Lindinger in direct competition with Wolf Theiss managing partner Horst Ebhardt in a fascinatingly genteel duel for superiority.
With impeccable manners on both sides, do not expect any fireworks. Indeed, such is the respect afforded to each other, one could easily imagine them both swapping gifts of Vienna’s famous Sacher-torte chocolate cake whenever they meet.
After all, with plenty of European sweets to go round, there is room for both firms at the table. So says Lindinger, at least, as he describes the journey from Austrian to CEE firm.
“From the outset, the strategy was simple,” Lindinger says. “We were the leading firm in a seven million [person] market and the goal is to be among the leading firms in a 200 million market. The question is, where do we have a competitive advantage? Not in China or India – it was always Central Europe. It’s our China.”
When Lindinger arrived back in Vienna in April this year, refreshed from his three-month sabbatical, he found a legal community in love with bad news. Far from running into the bush like the Solomon Islander, Lindinger tackled head-on the downbeat attitudes in the market. “The whole legal community was talking about the crisis. It was also not believing good news and generally being very concerned,” he says.
The reality is that Schoenherr has grown extraordinarily quickly in recent years and does not seem to be stopping any time soon. The firm has doubled its turnover since 2005 to hit e60m (£54.62m) in 2008-09.
Lindinger has set a target of doubling turnover again by 2014, but there will be no panic if the firm falls short.
“The economic environment is not in favour of us doubling again in five years but then again who cares if we double in 2014 or 2016? It doesn’t matter,” he says.
This year the firm opened new offices in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia, and also took over the Prague office of Gleiss Lutz.
The expansion plan, a one-stop shop for CEE referrals from global firms and international clients wanting cross-border advice in the region, matches that of Wolf Theiss exactly. Both firms benefited from the opening up of Eastern Europe in the 1990s, and both experienced fast growth.
But the firms do have their differences. Lindinger points to the internal culture, quoting one of the Austrian papers that described the two firms as “high-level understatement” (Schoenherr) versus “new kid on the block” (Wolf Theiss).
“We are competing for similar mandates and comparable talent, but we do our own thing,” adds Lindinger.
He is equally as unconcerned with international firms, many of which have pulled out of the region.
“I don’t see them as a threat,” Lindinger claims. “We operate in different markets and, to a large extent, target different work.” Questions of mergers are dealt with quickly.
“For the foreseeable future I don’t see them as being on the table,” he says. “I’m trying to concentrate on what the issues are, and a merger with a larger Anglo-Saxon or German firm is definitely not one of them.”
Meanwhile, Lindinger admits that keeping your head while those around you lose theirs was something of a luxury during the madness of the financial meltdown. It was afforded to him by putting thousands of miles between himself and the nearest set of financial pages. “It’s not something you could do while on the treadmill.”
You cannot help thinking that the philosophical Lindinger carries a part of a small island in the South Pacific with him wherever he goes. “Maybe I’m a bit of an adventurer,” he adds, smiling. “We’re doing our own thing.”
Next week: Horst Ebhardt, managing partner of Wolf Theiss, on Schoenherr and running the largest firm in CEE.