The Leader column

So Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is the only international magic circle firm without an Italian practice to call its own. In the same week that saw US giant White & Case announce its marriage to Varrenti e Associati (see page 11), Freshfields itself witnessed its talks with Chiomenti e Associati – revealed in The Lawyer last October – collapse.

One of the main reasons for the collapse appears to be lockstep, that old chestnut of failed merger discussions. Freshfields' trim 2.5:1 spread is miles away from Chiomenti's whopping 8:1. With neither party prepared to budge (Freshfields had already widened its spread to accommodate Bruckhaus), is it any surprise that the talks have dried up?

But that's the Italian market for you. Dominated by boutique firms, the practices in turn are often dominated by the old-school name partners. The discrepancy between junior and senior partners is often gaping.

And Freshfields is not the only international firm that has had its share of problems with the market. White shoe practice Shearman & Sterling is still looking for a partner after Chiomenti turned it down two years ago. And while Clifford Chance may have merged with alliance partner Grimaldi, it was a hard-won and fraught deal. And that was after seven years of association.

But then, could Freshfields really handle another merger right now? As if we could forget, the UK firm has undergone two German marriages in under two years and is still deep in the throes of bedding them down.

Freshfields certainly needs to beef up its Italian presence, which is one of its weakest links internationally. And so the firm is understood to be looking at "other options". Might it revisit its chosen – and hugely successful – Dutch plan of rape and pillage, for example? There it has managed to build up a successful operation through a series of hefty laterals from some of the country's leading practices. This week, for example, it has succeeded in nabbing yet another high-profile partner, finance specialist Jeroen Thijssen from Nauta Dutilh. This strategy would be particularly apt in Italy, where there are undoubtedly a raft of junior partners worried about missing the international boat while the senior partners desperately try to hang on to their profits.

Either way, whatever it has decided upon, don't think Freshfields is done with Italy yet.