David Aitman: Freshfields’ fresh face

David Aitman was once told he’d never make it big in the law. Almost half a century later, the new global managing partner of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, would – very politely – beg to differ.

At one time it certainly looked like he would take a very different path. In 1978 the softly spoken Aitman was on the verge of taking up a junior lectureship to study for a PhD on Henry James at University College London, having read English at Sheffield University and studied piano at the Royal College of Music on the side.

But it was the winter of discontent and Margaret Thatcher’s plans for education put paid to that plan.

Despite being told the young Aitman was unlikely to “ever get into a big firm”, the former Denton Hall partner and head of the Freshfields partnership council, responsible for partner promotions and strategy, will take up the reins from Ted Burke when he steps down in 2014 (30 September 2013).

Aitman says Burke was “very proactive and incredibly knowledgable about how the market works and perceptive about what our clients are wanting and what our competitors may be doing”.

He’s very open, he has absorbed a lot of the culture and people’s desires and needs. His advantage was that by the end he knew every bit of the firm from what key issues the team in Italy were handling to what the plans were for the finance people in Spain,” Aitman says.

He is a man of the people, and I hope I’m a man of the people as well,” he adds, with a self-effacing chuckle.

Aitman is keen on listening and conversation, even praising the knocking down of the library in the firm’s Fleet Street office to make way for a canteen, which he says forces people to communicate more.

As senior elected member of the partnership council – a position he has held since 2010 – and co-head of the global antitrust, competition and trade practice for four years, Aitman has had time to prove his management credentials. His success in these roles could be behind his uncontested step up to the top spot in the firm.

Colleagues refer to him as wise and a “great listener” who is good at generating new ideas and driving forward strategy, and listening is certainly high on his agenda. His management mantra comes from an anecdote about old client Nissan, who revolutionised their assembly line process after a suggestion from a worker on the company’s Sunderland plant about when they should add the doors to their cars.

Aitman will kick off his preparation for his new role by touring the firm’s offices to speak to partners and associates, something he has already done with senior partner Will Lawes in his current capacity.

But what else is on his agenda for the firm’s future and how does he compare to the firm’s charismatic former leaders?

Aitman acknowledges that the legal world is “moving on” and he knows he needs to respond, in particular to the changing needs of clients.

Our clients are much more sophisticated in how they buy legal services and many of them have much larger in-house departments than a few years ago,” he says.

We have to be really good at interacting with them. You don’t want to say ‘we’ve got a massive disclosure exercise’, go off into back rooms and work on documents for 10 weeks then revert and put in a bill. It’s much more a case of ‘how can we go about this exercise; what resource do you need from us, what would you want to handle in house; what is the timing; what is the budget?” 

The way the firm services clients looks set to change, and litigation is likely to increase in importance. The firm has been bolstering its US litigation offering in recent years with the hire of 16 partners last year alone.

Aitman says: “Risk has gone right up people’s agendas – whether energy trading, Libor, risks of loss of IP rights, cyber security risks, all these things have gone right up people’s agendas. That’s not to say transactions aren’t important – they are – but in terms of the range and emphasis of services some clients want, there are different levels of priority on their agendas.”

As for regions, Aitman is keeping schtum. It might be wise to keep an eye out for Africa though and Asia is still a key focus.

For now, Aitman is keeping up his gardening and concert-standard piano playing and looking forward to a new office and a new role at Freshfields.