Wilmer Cutler's acquisition of the delightfully-named Quack – the last remaining part of Gaedertz – shows what US firms in Germany can achieve outside the glare of Frankfurt. Wilmer Cutler set up in Berlin at a time when the city was a legal backwater dominated by old-school firms. For the rest of the decade Andreas Weitbrecht built up a useful business centred for the most part on government and regulatory work – as one might expect from a Washington DC firm. As the practice began to take off, Weitbrecht moved to Brussels, leaving the office in the hands of two men who fairly personify the two strands of the business – Roland Steinmeyer and Matthias Wissmann. Steinmeyer provides a textbook example of how to build a corporate finance practice out of government contacts; almost by stealth, that practice has scooped some choice work, most notably the privatisation of the Düsseldorf utilities.
Wissmann – who has just been voted shadow economics minister – is, as you would expect of a senior CDU politician, fabulously well-connected on the federal level. (An aside: it's worth noting that Wissmann is a national political figure rather than a local party bigwig. He was entirely uninvolved in the Bankgesellschaft Berlin scandal, which embroiled the local CDU in all sorts of difficulties and which ended up with them losing power in the city.)
So far, so good. But at something like 15 lawyers, Wilmer Cutler was still a boutique – it had promise, but needed the people. The merger with Quack will double the office at a stroke. Karl-Heinz Quack is one of the outstanding figures in post-war German antitrust, while his son Ulrich looks like he'll follow in his footsteps. The merged practice could give the leading firms in Berlin a run for their money.
So is Berlin the new place to be? One might be tempted to attribute Travers Smith Braithwaite's newly-launched Berlin office to extraordinary prescience, were it not for the fact that managing partner Chris Carroll cheerfully admits that his firm's hire of Couderts' Karl Pilny was entirely governed by practice and cultural fit, rather than by location.
Berlin may be one of the new media and IT centres in Germany, but unless you have links with the local economy, you can only flourish there if you plug into the regulatory arena. Wilmer Cutler and Hogan & Hartson – another Washington DC practice – have managed it. Travers Smith may turn out to be an isolated exception; other UK corporate firms need not apply.