Rizor’s edge

As Osborne Clarke moves into a new era, German managing partner Stefan Rizor has become a powerful voice within the firm. Julia Cahill reports

Stefan Rizor would perhaps feel more at home on the party pages of Heat or Hello! than in The Lawyer. Osborne Clarke‘s new managing partner for Germany has a penchant for glamour and celebrity. This, after all, is the man responsible for the unlikely appearance of Heidi Klum on The Lawyer‘s front page 18 months ago (4 June 2001). Watched by 16 million viewers, the supermodel chose Rizor as her ‘phone-a-friend’ in the German celebrity version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

As if that were not enough, when we meet at Osborne Clarke’s Old Bailey offices, he has just been hobnobbing with none other than Pierce Brosnan. The film star showed up at a meeting in Essen when Rizor was advising German film distributor Televisor on arrangements with Brosnan’s new company Irish Dream Time. Rizor is a corporate lawyer, but his practice nevertheless has a strong media bent. “I am a bit of a film buff,” he admits.

In fact, he seems to fancy himself as a bit of a James Bond. No sooner has he poured the tea than he launches into a tongue-in-cheek account of how his charm and looks were crucial to winning the part of German legal expert on Bertelsmann’s defence team in a million-dollar lawsuit.

“They had to choose someone good-looking to impress the jury,” he quips. Having beaten the competition in a beauty parade, Rizor will be decamping to playboy haunt Santa Monica, where the trial kicks off in April. 007 would be proud.

Amid so much glamour, it is an effort to steer Rizor on to the more serious. He has just been elected managing partner for Germany, taking over from former UK partner Adrian Taylor, who has left the firm. By all accounts – including his own – Rizor was the obvious choice. As head of the Cologne office, he was already on the German and UK management boards as well as the international alliance board. “Everyone tells me it was an easy decision to vote for me,” he says. “I can motivate people and I have an eye for talent, for spotting other people who can organise.”

Rizor has opted for a two-year term. “I’d like to have two years to shape Germany,” he says. “I think that’s long enough to develop Germany the way I’d like to see it.”

It was less than two years ago, in March 2001, that Rizor took an almighty leap of faith by joining the UK firm. As Osborne Clarke’s alliance with Graf von Westphalen Fritze & Modest bit the dust, Rizor switched sides, leaving the firm where he grew, under the wing of founder Friedrich Graf von Westphalen, into one of the firm’s top billers. It was a tough decision both professionally and personally. Concurrent with the demise of the Osborne Westphalen alliance, Rizor was closely involved in Graf’s merger negotiations with regional firm Freiburg Bappert Witz & Selbherr. He had also been seeking to shape the firm’s future by hiring younger lawyers, or “trendy solicitors”, as he calls them.

“There were a lot of ties,” he says. “I was the Prince of Wales to Graf. It was clear that he liked me.”

Yet with six other Cologne partners, Rizor took the chance to spearhead the revised German strategy of a firm better known for its Thames Valley prowess. Nothing if not a risk. But Rizor had found more in common with Osborne Clarke than with many of his German colleagues at the sprawling national firm, who were left smarting over the aggressive approach of the Brits.

“Osborne Clarke had been very patient with the Graf operation. We were talking about full integration for a long time. But the offices in Hamburg, Munich, Berlin and so on were all very different. It was hard to find the right formula to get things done,” says Rizor. He describes the split as an “amicable divorce”, but it is clear that emotions are not far below the surface on either side.

His desire to hang onto Osborne Clarke’s other international connections was critical to Rizor’s decision. “We’d worked very successfully with Osborne Clarke and the international alliance,” he explains. “We were working not just with London, but with Brussels and Copenhagen. To go back to a firm that looked strictly national would have been very difficult.” It is somewhat ironic that Graf (now Graf von Westphalen Bappert & Modest) has since signed up to an exclusive referral alliance with Wragge & Co (although it must be said that there is no desire to merge on either side this time).

“If they’ve managed it, they’ve done better than I expected,” he admits.

But he is quick to point out the downsides, such as his old firm’s lack of capability in Frankfurt. Osborne Clarke filled this gap for itself by hiring a bunch of Coudert Schurmann partners.

A public statement by Graf about the collapse of the Osborne Clarke deal is still ringing in Rizor’s ears. In a carefully-worded jibe, Graf said: “We agreed to remain an independent German co-partnership and that we shouldn’t answer to London or Bristol.”

Nonsense, says Rizor. “I never reported to Bristol. I was part of the management board,” he states. “You could say that Bristol reported to Cologne because I received the same amount of information as every other partner.

“Bristol doesn’t sound very attractive to a snobby German businessman. Birmingham doesn’t sound more attractive. If Osborne Clarke wasn’t good enough, I don’t know what makes Wragges so attractive.”

Almost as crucial as the international angle, Osborne Clarke’s offer was a chance for Rizor to divest himself of what he perceived as an ageing and divided partnership for a new office with youth on its side and a single, firmwide profit pool.

With so much experience of inter-office strife in his past, I ask Rizor what solutions he can offer to the apparent tensions between Osborne Clarke’s own UK offices. But he is adamant that the firm’s problems are nothing like those of its former ally.

“I think the differences between London and Bristol have been completely exaggerated,” he emphasises. “I haven’t seen any competition at any significant level. One reason we wanted a united lockstep when we joined was because we didn’t want that kind of competition.”

He points to some recent trips he has made to New York. In his old firm there would have been a fuss about sharing the work out between offices, he says, instead of letting it go to the best person for the job.

Now that he is running the show for Osborne Clarke in Germany, how does he see the practice developing? The possibility of opening in Munich is certainly on the agenda and will be looked at this year.

“We have brought in a good image to Osborne Clarke. I want to develop that further. Law firms in Germany are still very traditional. We try to combine the best of the new economy values with the old traditions,” he says.

Whereas at Graf, Osborne Clarke lacked visibility on the firm’s letterhead, Rizor has founds himself in the reverse position of having to convince national clients of his firm’s German capability.

“We’re very good for German clients with international aspirations – not just technology-driven clients, but clients in other industries too,” he says.

In true Osborne Clarke style, Cologne and Frankfurt are being developed along the core practice areas of corporate, technology, employment and real estate. Other clients include Electronic Arts, Quest Communications, Delfi and Kwik-Fit equivalent ATU, as well as a niche acting for the exclusive car dealers of Volkswagen, Audi, Mercedes and the like.

Rizor, a mere 41 years old, is optimistic that his term in office will see Osborne Clarke’s German capability come of age. “We have a saying in Germany that lawyers aged 40-55 are in the prime of their expertise. There are a lot of lawyers [here] who will turn 40 this year and next year. That’s why I’m quite hopeful.”

Stefan Rizor
Manging partner
Osborne Clarke, Germany