Braham faces high expectations as Freshfields’ global corporate head

Can Ed Braham balance the needs of London, Germany and his clients? asks Kit Chellel

When Ed Braham returns from holiday this month he will have more than just a holiday hangover to contend with.

As newly appointed global head of corporate at Freshfields ­Bruckhaus Deringer Braham takes over the biggest department at one of the largest firms in the UK.

On top of this he will step into the shoes of respected German predecessor Andreas Fabritius, under whose watch the corporate group achieved so much.

In this year’s The Lawyer UK 200 Annual Report, Freshfields is arguably the star performer in the corporate rankings, leapfrogging Clifford Chance into second place and closing the gap on Linklaters at the top.

So Braham has taken on a high-stakes job that comes with a unique set of challenges. “It’s quite a big step up,” comments a former ­Freshfields partner.

Braham, who before his ­promotion headed one of the four ­London corporate teams and the international infrastructure and transport group, is something of a surprise appointment, externally at least.

Partners at rival firms always saw financial institutions head Will Lawes as the favourite for the role. “Will’s the guy everyone knows,” says one magic circle ­partner. “I think the outside world was a bit surprised he wasn’t picked.”

Insiders at Freshfields insist that Lawes was never in the running. Which begs the question, why not?

The most likely explanation, according to some Freshfields partners, is that he is being groomed for the senior partner role, which will become vacant if Guy Morton stands down as expected in just over a year.

“Lawes is the perfect candidate,” reveals a Freshfields partner.

And although many outsiders had tipped Lawes, Braham’s ­colleagues are not surprised that he was chosen.

Freshfields partners praise his intellect and his measured approach to management, and also point to his drive to secure a top management position.

“We knew at some point he’d take on a role like this. He has a force of personality that comes from his intellectual rigour and clarity of thought,” gushes a ­Freshfields partner who has worked with Braham. “He doesn’t allow himself to be diverted by the chaff around the edges.”

Outside the firm Braham is best known as one of two relationship partners for Goldman Sachs – he headed the team advising a ­Goldman-led consortium on its £2.4bn bid for Associated British Ports in 2006.

Another headline-grabbing deal was the multibillion-dollar merger of Emirates Bank and National Bank of Dubai in 2007, on which Braham advised Goldman as the lead financial adviser on the deal.

Braham is also well-known for his work in private equity, although he came to the party ­relatively late. “He got into private equity at a time when that was where the corporate action was,” says a current Freshfields partner.

Or as another magic circle lawyer puts it: “He’s an M&A lawyer who rebranded himself as doing private equity.”

Part of his role as head of the ‘B’ corporate team (one of four teams focusing on specific sectors and clients – see box) was to oversee a push into private equity.

Braham’s relationship with CVC Capital Partners has historically been a boon for the firm, although Clifford Chance and SJ Berwin have gained ground recently.

His links with CVC secured roles on the Debenhams IPO in 2006 and before that the £1.41bn merger of Kappa Packaging and Jefferson Smurfit Group.

Braham’s colleagues argue that his experience of several different sectors will serve him well in ­overseeing a diverse global ­practice.

Braham is likely to remain a key fee-earning partner at the firm. Freshfields insists that the global head of corporate role is not full-time and that Braham will spend as much, if not more, time on client work as he did before the promotion.

Of course, partners at other firms pour scorn on the idea of a global position being compatible with a heavy M&A workload.

“If I was a Freshfields partner I’d be a little bit disappointed with one of the heavy hitters being taken off the pitch,” comments one magic circle lawyer.

But Freshfields has more than enough managerial muscle to share the load in London. There are the four heads of the A, B, C and D corporate teams, London corporate chief Mark Rawlinson and the continuing influence of London managing partner Tim Jones, who used to run the City corporate group.

And then there are the sector chiefs, who are understood to be the first port of call on conflicts.

“By having more people in management it means that each person does less and each individual can keep their own practices going,” reveals a Freshfields insider, who adds that partners are expected to return to practice after a stint in management.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Braham is marrying the interests of the two biggest offices, Germany and London.

This was an easier task for Frankfurt-based Fabritius than it will be for Braham, who will be the first Londoner to manage the corporate group singled-handed since the merger with Bruckhaus Westrick Heller Löber in 2000.

“Only about a third of the ­business is now in London, and Germany is probably now at least as profitable as London,” reveals a ­former London Freshfields ­partner. “I don’t know what the ­Germans will make of it. Obviously some deal has been struck.”

The corporate, finance and ­dispute resolution heads are all now in the UK, although the new global head of tax, appointed in April, is based in Cologne.
Freshfields sources say the fact that the firm is content to have sole practice group heads in London (it used to have joint leaders in both countries) is a sign of how cohesive the two offices now are.

There remains a friendly rivalry between the firm’s two powerhouses. After a stellar year that propped up the whole corporate group, German partners might well feel entitled to more representation and will be looking to the new man at the helm.

When he returns from his ­summer break Braham is likely to be under closer scrutiny than he has ever faced in his career. Let’s hope he likes the limelight.

Freshfields’ corporate leaders

Global head of corporate: Ed Braham
London head of corporate: Mark Rawlinson
Germany head of corporate: Marius Berenbrok
Team A: Will Lawes
Team B: Vacant (was Braham)
Team C: Barry O’Brien
Team D: Julian Long