Freshfields is starting to look careless. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and British Telecom (BT), and now London Underground (LUL) – that’s a triple whammy of key client defections.
Just a coincidence? Or is Freshfields losing the plot?
With RBS, the problem, apparently, was that chief executive officer Fred Goodwin didn’t like Freshfields’ style; and if the man at the top really doesn’t like the cut of your jib, there isn’t much you can do until he goes.
A common factor in the other two cases is money. BT asked Freshfields to cut its costs for corporate work and met with a flat “no”. Fleet Street’s best don’t discount on ‘premium products’ like corporate. (The firm will discount on finance work – it offered Barclays a reduced rate as part of its doomed panel pitch – but that’s another story.)
Fair enough, but in this economic climate everyone’s doing it. Although Slaughters would deny it, ask anyone in the market for stories of its ‘creativity’ on private equity fees.
As for those naughty Linklaters boys, you can’t pick up the phone these days without getting another tale about undercutting by Silk Street. Perhaps Freshfields feels BT was a client it could afford to lose to Linklaters – it still acts for 02 and Hutch, which both continue to pay the full whack.
On the other hand, I wonder what assistants in Freshfields’ projects department think about the loss of LUL, which has contributed around £30m to Freshfields’ coffers.
These were the same assistants who were mistakenly informed by email that they didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of making partner because there isn’t enough work around. If it was about money, they must be hacked off.
However, I’m inclined to think that there are darker forces at play at LUL.
We know that the panel review was triggered by the transfer of LUL to Ken Livingstone’s Transport for London.
As was widely reported in the press, Freshfields, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Arup wrote a report for LUL, which helped it to conclude that public-private partnership was the way forward. And surely the firm helped LUL out when Red Ken tried to challenge the London Underground decision with a judicial review? I think we can take it that Freshfields isn’t on Ken’s Christmas card list.
Making a stand on costs may have contributed to Freshfields’ woes, but there is bad luck in there too. In fact, I almost feel sorry for it. That is, until I get the Tube to work at rush hour – then I think Freshfields deserves everything it gets.