Pastures new for Freshfields

What do Wachtell, Cravath and Sullivan & Cromwell have in common?

If you answered they’re the only three remaining top 50 US firms with higher average profits per partner than Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, you win a free bagel.

Last month, in The Lawyer’s Transatlantic Elite 2008, we hinted at the UK-headquartered firm’s astonishing 2007-08 performance. The results published yesterday confirm it (see story).

With its 39 per cent increase to £1.44m, Freshfields’ average profitability has leapfrogged Kirkland, Cleary, Paul Weiss, Milbank, Willkie and even Cadwalader. It has even squeezed ahead of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett.

Clearly, Freshfields has a lot going for it right now. As chief executive Ted Burke points out, the firm’s wide international coverage (and Asia in particular) has been a boon over the past year or more.

Inevitably what the firm’s new profits peak does put squarely back onto the agenda is its US merger ambitions.

It was just over two years ago that Freshfields’ senior partner Guy Morton put a tie-up with a US firm at the top of his personal to-do list, saying in his first interview since taking the post, “I think the partners are ready mentally for a merger”.

Comparative financial performance has long been the traditional barrier to a top-tier, US-UK tie up. Not now.

Now the most pertinent question might be, would a potentially dilutive merger with a Wall St titan be in the best interests of Freshfields?