The Lawyer European Awards Berlin

The second annual European Awards saw a diverse and stellar cast take their bows in the German capital. By James Swift

On 23 September Berlin played host to The Lawyer’s second annual European Awards ceremony and its European Law Leaders conference.

Opening the conference, Barclays Capital chief economist Professor Thorsten Polleit gave the keynote speech: a lively talk on the shortcomings of paper money and why we should, once again, put our trust in gold. Polleit passed some gold around the room to help make his point and, with only some gentle coaxing, got it back at the end too.

Pleasantries over, it was the turn of the in-house counsel, and they pulled no punches. Richard Devereux and Melanie Poepping, lawyers at Intel Corporation and Deutsche Bank respectively, were on the panel discussing what counsel wanted from their law firms, and took the opportunity to vent spleen about what it is law firms do that grates on their in-house peers.

According to the Devereux and Poepping, the past two years have brought good news and tough ­challenges for in-house counsel. One of the more gratifying things about the credit crunch has been that firms have become more attentive to their clients over the past 24 months and began pitching to appear on panels a lot more as work has dried up.

On the other hand, legal fees have resumed their upward trajectory – rising between 70 and 75 per cent in the past 10 years – most recently at a time when in-house counsel’s ­budgets remain tight.

On top of this, the role of in-house counsel has changed too, adding further stress to what has historically already been a fraught relationship.

“The changes happening in the relationship between in-house ­counsel and law firms are down to changes in the role of in-house ­counsel,” said Poepping, director and senior counsel at Deutsche Bank. “We used to sit in our offices and be very focused on law firm relationships. But now we’re more like proactive business advisers and we’ve ­transferred these pressures onto [law firms]. It’s now less of a relationship and more of a partnership between in-house counsel and law firms.”

According to Devereux, labour law counsel for Intel in Europe, one of the biggest bugbears for an in-house counsel – apart from boarding a plane in economy class only to see your outside counsel and two associates board at the front of the plane at your company’s expense – is outside firms going over budget and not ­saying anything until the final bill.

“[Outside firms] assume we’re paid servants and get our salary no matter what,” says Devereux. “But in-house counsel’s salaries can be linked to bonus by as much as one-third and if we go over budget it gets blown. […] What I’d love from outside ­counsel is if, halfway through a job, they stopped work, picked up the phone and talked to us about the bill.”

Both Poepping and Devereux agreed that prices were not, per se, an issue; the value is there for all to see. Nor is the hourly rate necessarily a bad thing, since fixed fees can result in parties from either side getting a raw deal. Rather, it is receiving a bill riddled with inefficiencies and getting it late that sticks in their craw.

“It’s frustrating to see on a bill that a partner’s spent two hours doing research when an associate could do it. Also, when firms provide more than we asked for. A colleague of mine summed it up, saying, ’I didn’t ask them to build me a Swiss watch, I just asked for the time’.”

Other conference highlights included the presentation on lawyer-to-lawyer referrals by Derek Benton, director of international operations at Martindale-Hubbell.

As was probably expected, the US emerged as the key jurisdiction for referrals, with firms from every region except Eastern Europe regarding the Americans as an important source, according to research completed by LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell.

The importance of referrals for a firm was also stated neatly, with almost half of sample firms claiming that they receive more than 10 per cent of their overall revenues from referral work, while 26 per cent claimed it was more than 20 per cent. Globally, the four most active practice areas in terms of referrals have been litigation and disputes (16 per cent), general corporate (15 per cent), M&A (12 per cent) and IP (10 per cent).

On the subject of giving, Sir Christopher Meyer was on hand to present firms with their awards at the evening’s awards ceremony.

Salans walked away with the ­ultimate prize, scooping European Law Firm of the Year. As was the case for most firms, 2009-10 was not ­especially kind to Salans, with its global revenue dropping by 6.3 per cent to £172.1m. But the firm has persisted with its broad-based model, most recently putting real estate at the forefront of its strategy in Poland with the hire of partner Pawel Debowski and his team from ­Clifford Chance, while its strategic alliance with Pinsent Masons in June 2009 has allowed it considerably more reach in Western Europe. It was this commitment, as well as its ability to land clients such as Enel and Warner Chilcott, that made Salans feel like the right choice.

Another notable winner was ­Kinstellar, which earned recognition as Emerging Law Firm of the Year – a new award this year and one that looks to reward performance and ambition among the younger firms.

After spinning off from Linklaters in 2008 Kinstellar has forged ahead with plans to break free from its old magic circle roots into an ­independent firm in its own right. That said, it has cleverly mined its past for top talent, recruiting former Linklaters lawyers to build an ­impressive team. In March 2009 it opened an office in Belgrade and managing partner Jason Mogg spent the rest of the year putting together a team for a new office in Turkey. With a clear focus on Eastern Europe’s young markets and a good brand name in the UK, Kinstellar has all the credentials to become a major CEE force in years to come.

On its own turf and in one of the most eagerly fought categories, ­Hengeler Mueller was named German Law Firm of the Year. That the firm was involved in half of all transactions worth more than e500m (£430.61m) in Germany in 2009 was almost enough on its own to clinch Hengeler the title, but this ­achievement was topped by a highly commended training academy and praise from The Lawyer judges for the firm’s “forward-looking strategic vision”, putting Germany’s most ­prestigious practice above the rest.

Spanish lawyers fared well in Berlin. The award for Niche Firm of the Year was scooped by six-partner Spanish IP boutique Grau & Angulo, described by the judges as “making waves”. Bird & Bird’s Madrid office has only been open for five years, but its growth has been impressive: it took home the award for Best Overseas Office. And Manuel Martin of Gomez-Acebo & Pombo won the sole individual award of the evening, ­taking home the trophy for European Managing Partner of the Year (see box, right). The Iberian winner
in a very tough category was Uría ­Menéndez, the first firm from the region to open in Beijing.

Although every firm shortlisted inevitably had an impressive record on transactional work, several also attracted the judges’ notice for their attention to internal workplace issues, particularly in training and diversity. For instance, the Swiss ­winner Bär & Karrer is in an alliance with a Swiss university for a four-year training plan for its associates, while Swedish winner Mannheimer Swartling has been assiduously ­implementing a long-term strategy to retain women – this year half of its new partners were female.

For a full list of winners please click here.