On first impressions, Gleiss Lutz corporate star Gerhard Wegen fits right into the UK’s German stereotype of a rather formal and didactic Teutonic lawyer.
When asked what he does in his spare time, Wegen talks about the opera, but hastily adds: “Don’t say anything about the opera – there are people who appreciate opera, I just go there.” Not the sort of phrase you can imagine coming out of the mouth of an English M&A lawyer. On the contrary, Wegen seems like the sort of chap who could sing The Magic Flute for his supper and then have a chat about Wittgenstein for an encore.
So, while he is a little fastidious (Wegen himself says he is too pedantic to be an investment banker), there is no doubt that he is highly rated internationally.
Other Gleiss partners such as Gerhard Wirth and Bodo Rigger are icons inside Germany, but for Anglo-Americans Wegen is the face of Herbert Smith’s best friend Gleiss. This is true to the extent that some UK corporate lawyers who work with Gleiss are simply unable to contemplate ever dealing with anyone else at the firm.
There is a reason for this. Scratch the surface a little and a different aspect from the slightly stilted formality is revealed. Wegen is one of the firm’s most internationally-minded lawyers, an über-European as well as a lover of the Stars and Stripes.
It probably helps that, while most German lawyers speak English well enough to make any mono-lingual UK partner blush with shame, Wegen actually seems to speak the language better than some English-born lawyers.
Like most lawyers at Herbert Smith, Wegen is predictably evangelical about the advantages of the best friends arrangement. “What we have at the moment,” he says, “is the unanimous support of the partners for what we’re doing while maintaining an international perspective.”
The issue is not one of profits. “We would not volunteer figures, but we don’t think we have a problem with Herbert Smith,” claims Wegen. It’s more a question of the cultural changes enforced in the wake of other Anglo-German mergers. “We’ve seen that in some of the recent mergers, people on the fringes – experts in certain areas, niche areas – were encouraged to move on,” says Wegen. For Gleiss, the full service concept is central to its cultural identity.
What Wegen does not refer to is the ill-fated alliance between Gleiss and Clifford Chance in the early 1990s. This is very likely something that left a bad taste in the mouths of Gleiss partners, and in particular maverick name partner Martin Hirsch, who ran the firm’s Frankfurt office.
The story is that cultural sensitivity was not very high on the Clifford Chance agenda; certainly, there appeared to be bad blood when the alliance split, with the two sets of partners stuck in the same building, scowling at one another in the lift.
According to Wegen, however, nothing is ruled out for the Herbert Smith-Gleiss-Stibbe alliance. “If the market requires more visibility, we’d look at it. We always said so. We don’t exclude it. We work towards the goal of full integration in practice areas,” he insists.
So what would constitute a market compulsion? A merger between a major US and European firm would be the key, says Wegen. But it may be some time before Wegen feels compelled to share his profits with Richard Bond.
As in any firm, there are differences of opinion. The old guard at Gleiss remains anti-merger, but if there is one bit of the firm that could do with a helping hand from London, it is the more internationally-focused Frankfurt office.
Over the last 15 years Wegen has seen his firm grow from an excellent, albeit small and rather niche, player into one of Germany’s leading independent law firms, just behind the likes of Hengeler Mueller.
What has not changed, however, is that the heart and soul of the firm is in Stuttgart. Stuttgart is not exactly a provincial backwater (some key German multinationals are headquartered there), but it is no coincidence that recent Anglo-US invaders have not put the city at the heart of their Teutonic expansion.
Wegen is of course right when he says that, unlike in the UK, law firms can do their best deals out of Stuttgart. Ultimately, though, the firm must demonstrate strength outside its home province if it is to continue to develop. Frankfurt would be a good place to start. Wegen, demonstrating a refreshing honesty typical of his countrymen (from which the London management of some magic circle firms could learn a thing or two) admits as much. “Forty lawyers in Frankfurt – that’s just too small for that city, there’s no doubt about it,” he says starkly.
The conservative culture at Gleiss makes it intrinsically difficult to build up its key Frankfurt finance practice. As Wegen explains: “It’s not so easy to get people who are very efficient, because if they’re very good they’re well positioned in other firms. If they’re from in-house, you need to get people with the right entrepreneurial spirit.
“When times aren’t so good you see a lot of people, but we’re very careful in this situation because we don’t want to compromise our partnership ideals – which means totally lockstep.”
On the bright side, says Wegen, the Stuttgart Landesbanks are keen on the idea of having someone on the ground there with links to Frankfurt. But it is not enough to build a practice on – Gleiss, like Herbert Smith, has a long way to go in finance.
On most cultural issues, Wegen is politically – and politely – keen to stress that the UK and Germany are different, but equal. So, while German lawyers are tightly bound to the academic system and UK corporate lawyers have not seen a university in 20 years (apart from at their kids’ graduations), both are equally effective as lawyers.
And while Gleiss would rather fold its operations that increase leverage ratios, Wegen thinks higher gearing is right for our little island (he also says that Gleiss will load on the assistants where international clients want that service).
The biggest difference, he says, is much more prosaic – it is all about how far you live from the office. In Stuttgart he gets home from work in 10 minutes.
When asked about his tastes in literature, he replies:
“Sex, crime and rock ‘n’ roll.” (This turns out to mean Agatha Christie and John Grisham.) He probably reads an entire book on his 10-minute journey into work, although he might linger longer over Paul Auster, another favourite.
To give Wegen his due, the man was really nervous throughout the interview and it is only clear why afterwards. Being the smooth international face of an extremely conservative German law firm which abhors the cult of personality must be a tough balancing act.