The Leader Column

On the face of it, it looks like a blow. Nine partners – almost a third of the firm's German partnership – leave Norton Rose's Cologne office. But in fact, it looks as if they've simply saved the Norton Rose management some time.
Roger Birkby, ever phlegmatic, talks of the nine defectors' “different style” of working. Translated, this simply means that Norton Rose can now get on with building a corporate and finance business that is complementary to London, without the hassle of having to manage out a practice which is essentially domestic.
In fact, after a rather sticky start, Norton Rose has done quite well in Germany. Who could forget the theatre of mishaps in 2000, when Gaedertz, pursued by any number of law firms, simply disintegrated? The initial team from Gaedertz was solid enough; at the time, Norton Rose gamely talked up the Cologne office's virtues. But the more impressive performance was yet to come. Opening at the same time in Munich was a sign of the firm's confidence, but the first hint that Norton Rose's offering really was an attractive one for German lawyers was when it bagged young Linklaters Oppenhoff salaried partner Frank Herring for its new Frankfurt office. Herring, who would have been a shoo-in for equity at Linklaters, had built up a sizeable investment funds practice.
Norton Rose then hired six partners in quick succession, putting the other former Gaedertz offices – Latham & Watkins SchöNolte and Mayer Brown & Platt Gaedertz – in the shade.
Because German lawyers stay in higher education so much longer than their UK equivalents, they are often in their late 20s before they join private practice – hence the short track to partnership of just a few years. Combined with a historically low leverage ratio, German associates, once in a law firm, usually had a better shot of making partner. Then along came the US and UK firms and changed the game. There is, therefore, a generation of smart German lawyers who find themselves blocked for reasons that have more to do with global law firm politics than anything else. It is for this reason that Norton Rose has become such an interesting proposition for German lawyers: heavyweight enough to count in European terms, but willing to snap up younger salaried partners. Norton Rose has, belatedly, learned not to faff around. It was about time.