Eilers: we’ll ‘just be called Freshfields’ in 10 years

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer will drop the names of its German legacy firms within a decade, according to new executive partner Stephan Eilers.

Stephan Eilers
Stephan Eilers

The former global tax chief for the magic circle firm officially took up his new role at the beginning of the year as part of a three-pronged management team with incoming senior partner Will Lawes and managing ­partner Ted Burke.

His appointment continues the thread of having dual UK and German leadership at the firm following the decision to move to a single senior partner, which came after Guy Morton and ­Konstantin Mettenheimer ended their tenures as joint senior partners at the close of last year. But Eilers says that, 10 years after the mergers that created the firm, the attitudes of the partnerships in its two largest jurisdictions are aligned more ­closely than ever.

“It’s a generational thing,” Eilers tells The Lawyer. “We’re making up partners now who’ve only worked in a large firm and these ­[partners] only know the firm after the merger. For the older generation the journey to London’s still quite ­something.”

The decision to switch to a single senior partner is ­evidence that the UK and German parts of the firm no longer operate as silos, says Eilers. Moving to a single name will further bed down the sense of unity.

“If you look at the firm 10 years from now,” he says, “it will just be called Freshfields, and I think nobody will care too much about it. We have half a generation behind us since the merger.”

It is thought that senior figures at the firm had been keen to drop the Bruckhaus and Deringer names earlier, but met with resistance from Germany. Eilers readily admits that there were ­differences of opinion between the partnerships in the past.

“When we went into the restructuring in 2006-07 there were more outspoken partners outside the UK than within, including me and Konstantin.
“We had 530 partners and profits were below our ­competition – it was as ­simple as that. In some areas we were just doing things that didn’t make sense.”

It is a different picture now, with Freshfields some 16 per cent lighter in terms of partner numbers and ahead of everyone but Slaughter and May in terms of partner profits.

This means that Eilers plans to look ­outwards when considering the coming year.

“Nothing’s on the agenda in terms of corporate governance. The challenges for us are all business challenges, not the internal stuff; costs are under control and the size of the firm is right.”

Those business challenges include, initially, a review of the firm’s emerging markets strategy, with Singapore identified as the most likely new outpost.

“Singapore would be the strongest candidate for expansion,” Eilers confirms, conceding that licensing issues may still prevent the firm practising local law.

While many at Freshfields have talked openly about the long-term prospect of a US merger, it is not high on ­Eilers’ agenda.

“If one of the major Wall Street firms calls we’d talk to them, but it’s not something I see happening,” he says.

Before any decisions are made, Eilers, Lawes and Burke will finish their tour of the global network. They have visited half of the offices already and will ­complete the set in March.

Addressing the issue of associate satisfaction – something that has been a ­concern across the magic circle ­during the downturn – Eilers remains bullish.

“Morale is high,” he insists. “They appreciate that we didn’t have a huge number of redundancies in the crisis. We had a salary freeze, but the feeling now is that they made the right decision [to stay].”

He adds that the firm expects to hire more fee-earners than it did in 2010 across all practices.