Stepping down

As Freshfields’ co-senior partner prepares to take his leave, he puts on his salesman’s hat to highlight the firm’s successes and spell out thechallenges for the future

Senior partners are there for the spirit of the firm,” says ­Konstantin Mettenheimer in one of his archetypal flights of esoteric fancy.

If that’s true, then Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer can expect to be a very different place when Mettenheimer – its co-senior partner since 2004 – hands on the baton at the end of the year.

When The Lawyer meets ­Mettenheimer he is not quite demob happy, but admits to looking forward to standing down after 10 years in a variety of management roles.

He plans to take a sabbatical, ­during which he will cycle from his Frankfurt home to Santiago de ­Compostela in Spain, before ­returning to the Freshfields ranks as a fee-earner.

“I’ll have been on the road for 10 years and not slept in the same room for two days in a row, so I thought it was time to call it a day,” says ­Mettenheimer. “My wife was pretty happy about that too.”

But it isn’t just the call of the ­marital bed that made Mettenheimer decide now was the time to exit Freshfields.

Mettenheimer became senior ­partner alongside Anthony Salz in 2004 as a result of Freshfields’ ­2000 merger with German firm Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Loeber.

The creation of the co-senior partner roles was designed to defuse some of the tension between the ­German and British partnerships. It’s a tension that Mettenheimer acknowledges was an issue in the early days but which he now feels has gone, as evidenced by the firm’s ­decision to return to a single senior partner.

“It’s no longer there and it’s one of the reasons I felt it was a good moment for me to go,” he says. “The international mix is something that’s now in the DNA of the firm.”

The challenges for the future revolve around how to maintain what Mettenheimer calls “the spirit of the partnership” with the competing demands of running an increasingly international operation.

“We do have to delegate more ­decisions than before,” he admits. “Frankfurt partners cannot decide on the colour of the carpet in ­London. But it’s still our firm; it belongs to us and people need to ­consider themselves not as one small wheel but as joint entrepreneurs.

“Some firms consider their international operation to be ’hub and spoke’. We’re more like a network of peers,” he adds.

The notion of a partnership of equals is a subject to which Mettenheimer regularly returns. He thinks the senior partner position plays an instrumental part in engineering that atmosphere. “We want an open, constructive partnership. That’s something that’s either supported by or stopped by the people at the top,” he explains.

“Yes, it comes from the partners but as senior partner you can do a lot to help foster that atmosphere. The head, the heart and the hand are all of equal importance.”

Growth ambitions

Clearly passionate about what the firm has achieved during his time at the top – “do I sound like a salesman?” he asks during one of his
soliloquies – Mettenheimer is also aware of what remains to be done.

Both he and Guy Morton - ­Mettenheimer’s co-senior partner since Salz stood down in 2006 – have gone on record as saying that a US merger was high on their list of ­priorities. So is he disappointed that the US has not proved such a happy hunting ground for the firm?

“Disappointed? No,” he answers. “But is there more to be done? Yes. We have a good offering there but it’s not very large. In the US, if I look at our competitors for international work, what we do sticks out but we do want to grow.

“We want to be the one and only truly international firm. It’s aspirational, but always being defensive gets you nowhere.”

Mettenheimer remains sanguine about his successor. He is confident that the new senior management team at Freshfields (chief executive Ted Burke and managing partner Peter Jeffcote are also standing down this year) will retain the multi-jurisdictional mix that he feels is vital.

“The firm has done very well at evolving over the years,” he says. “The next team won’t be revolutionising anything but will develop what we’ve already done.”

While it may end up being more of the same at the firm, Mettenheimer’s singular style will be missed. Before saying his farewells, he stops The Lawyer at the door of Freshfields’ Fleet Street HQ.

“Next time I start sounding like a salesman,” he jokes, “please stop me sooner.”