UK heavyweights come good

Three City firms had a stand-out year in their core areas. Aled Griffiths reveals how A&O, CC and Lovells dominated their chosen fields in Germany

It is all about focus. In three key areas of work, UK law firms have dominated. Their secret? Harnessing their cross-border strengths.

Take Lovells, whose European practice has motored over the last 12 months. The success over the past year of its German private equity team is based on its strong specialisation in the field, some would say to the detriment of conventional M&A, but more importantly the level of integration that the firm has achieved through Europe. A number of clients from the UK observed that the team has achieved a good balance of slick transaction management for the equity houses, coupled with an approach which reassures the German target (and possibly its lawyers).

Lovells’ two major figures are without doubt Joachim Habetha and Oliver Felsenstein, the latter also being German managing partner. Both are from the Frankfurt office, but Johannes Meinel and Benedikt Bräutigam from the firm’s much underrated Berlin office have also been attracting attention.

The relationship to Advent and Doughty Hanson has continued to deepen this year and has resulted in Lovells working on two of the year’s biggest buyouts: Doughty Hanson on ATU Autoteile Unger and Advent on the acquisition of Viatris from Degussa. The potential within the London-German axis was also underlined when the firm was picked by Terra Firma for a huge, if aborted, deal. With a client base that also includes HgCapital and Industri Kapital, Lovells’ performance is all the more remarkable for being undertaken by a relatively small group of partners.

In general corporate work, Allen & Overy (A&O) has had an outstanding year. Even in Germany, many competitors like to characterise A&O as a banking firm, but the past year has demonstrated that it is not only a much more balanced practice than many suppose, but that it is also probably the fastest-developing corporate team in Germany (although in truth it started from a modest base a few years ago).

The most important feature of A&O’s corporate practice is in fact partly derived from the finance practice: the work in corporate is wedded to the banking and capital markets tradition of the firm. Stock-corporation expertise (which came primarily from the merger with Schilling Zutt & Anschütz three years ago) has been exploited to capture a number of high-prestige clients last year, the most important example being Münchner Rück on its convertible and subsequent rights issue. It is precisely this type of sophisticated work where the international finance knowhow can be put to use for German blue-chips. A further example was the high-profile role advising Wella on the takeover of P&G.

The practice has a good mix of more senior partners (above all Arndt Overlack and Wolfgang Witz), a mid-ranking partnership that is seen as the rainmaking future of the firm (Hans-Christoph Ihrig, Johannes Bruski) and finally a group of younger partners who are already well known in the market (Michael Schlitt, Hartmut Krause).

Perhaps inevitably, Clifford Chance Pünder is still the one to beat for finance work in Germany. It was clear that when Pünder merged with Clifford Chance, the banking and finance field would be a primary focus. However, after the merger there was a degree of fluctuation in the practice that unsettled the German team, even if it involved lawyers moving to other offices in the Clifford Chance worldwide network.

The past year has seen a much more balanced performance, with the bank lending and acquisition finance practice developing particularly quickly. Two young partners, Bettina Steinhauer and Barbara Meyer-Trautmann, have proved that German lawyers could build out the position in their home market. Indeed, the fact that eight new partners have been announced since the merger speaks for the investment in the field.

What impresses most about Clifford Chance is the breadth of its practices: it boasts market-leading practices in asset finance (Riko Vanezis, Patrick Biagosch), derivatives (Peter Scherer), investment funds (Sven Zeller) and securitisation (Kirti Vasu, Michael Weller).

The capital markets practice has responded well to the dearth of initial public offerings, with equity lawyers filling in any gaps in the debt field left by the departure of an English partner over a year ago. Sebastian Maerker and Markus Pfüller are Clifford Chance’s best-known partners for capital markets work in Germany, and the return of Peter Nägele to the team also promises increased visibility in the market. However, the departure in late August of one of the team’s most promising younger partners, Philip von Illberg, to Dewey Ballantine was a major disappointment. As in other practice areas in the German offices, Clifford Chance cannot afford to lose younger partners of such calibre due to a lack of equity places.

Choosing your best friends wisely
Nabarro Nathanson’s best friend in Germany was astutely chosen. GSK Gassner Stockmann & Kollegen has become one of the key players for real estate advice in Germany. In fact, the primary challenge for German law firms involved in real estate and construction work has always been to shift their emphasis from the latter to the former. GSK’s transformation from a firm that dealt with construction law problems to one advising the real estate industry as a whole has been nothing short of spectacular.

Clients and competitors alike have been impressed by the recently-opened offices in both Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, but also by the recruitment, which has allowed a more complete client care approach to emerge. Central to this has been the strengthening of the corporate practice with Peter Ladwig, the former head of the Stuttgart Stock Exchange, who also brought considerable finance expertise. GSK had already recruited Rainer Werum last year from Dresdner Bank’s real estate group.

GSK’s standing in the market is bolstered by a group of established and highly respected senior partners, such as Philip Jebens, Andreas May and Rainer Stockmann, but the partnership is well balanced as regards age profile. This has helped the firm make remarkable strides in its major markets of Munich, Berlin and Frankfurt. All in all, the cooperation with Nabarros has proven to be remarkably stable and has given GSK an international platform which displays considerable potential.