Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP
Published May 2011
2011 Vault Ranking: 38
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is a global behemoth. This London-based Magic Circle firm employs 2,600 attorneys in twenty-seven offices around the world, and has the second highest revenue in the world among law firms, at almost $2.4 billion. The firm’s history goes back to a time before the American Revolution, and its clients include many of the world’s largest and best-known international corporations.
The current firm is an amalgam of three European firms, Freshfields and two German firms, Deringer Tessin and Bruckhaus Westrick. Freshfields’ history traces back to 1743, when one of its partners was first appointed solicitor to the Bank of England. For nearly three centuries the firm continued to serve the Bank of England, as well as picking up numerous other high-profile clients along the way. The firm changed its name to that of partner, and member of parliament, James William Freshfields early in the nineteenth century, and adopted part of his family crest for the firm’s own logo. Bruckhaus’ history is nearly as long. It was founded in Hamburg in 1840. Tessin is the relative youngster of the component firms, having been founded only in 1962 in Bonn.
In 2000, the three firms merged in a transaction that the Financial Times called “the most significant pan-European merger to date in the restructuring of Europe’s legal services.” It helped realize the ambition of all three firms to become one of the preeminent international law firms in the world, and has been largely successful in that regard. Today the firm employs 2,600 attorneys around the world, with over 100 attorneys between its New York and Washington D.C. offices, as well as another 150 U.S. qualified attorneys around the world.
In 2006 and 2007, just before the economy tanked, Freshfields undertook an internal restructuring plan aimed at slimming down the firm and reducing redundancies. Many partners were offered early retirement or de-equitized, and the firm trimmed down certain niche practice groups. When the recession hit, the firm was well prepared, and did not have to resort to the same drastic measures used by many of the bloated U.S.-based firms. U.S. associate salaries were not frozen, and no major layoffs occurred.
Freshfields is a giant of a firm, and as such it has an extremely varied practice. In Europe it is a full service firm, and very well regarded in nearly every area that it chooses to practice. Due to the limited size of its American offices, its practices are necessarily more limited, but the firm still excels in a few specific areas that each office focuses on.
The New York office is primarily focused on corporate work, engaged primarily in international deals. Its rankings for M&A work suffer because of the lack of domestic focus, but it has been involved in a number of major transactions in Europe, China, and South America. The office deals with a significant amount of Latin American businesses of all kinds, including energy, agriculture, and pharmaceutical giants. The U.S. offices also focus heavily on project finance, spanning the gamut from mining to infrastructure and power.
Litigation and dispute resolution has been very successful for Freshfields in the U.S. It has become very well known in particular for its international arbitration work, much of it related to other areas that the firm has specialized in, such as mineral or energy rights. Recent matters have included arbitrations between a Canadian mining company and Venezuela, and advising a Caribbean nation’s government on an offshore drilling rights dispute. The firm is also pushing hard to expand their white collar and government investigations group, having recently added partners from firms such as Covington & Burling and Willkie Farr.
Freshfields is ranked number thirty-eight overall by Vault. This reflects not the firm’s quality, but merely the fact that the firm is primarily focused on international matters, not an area that Vault accurately measures. Despite the lukewarm overall ranking for the international giant, it holds top five rankings in both International and Antitrust Law, and a top twenty ranking for General Corporate Practice.
Chambers and Partners ranks Freshfields in Band 1 or 2 for the following practices: Capital Markets (Structured Products), International Arbitration, and Projects (PPP).
Summer associates come to Freshfields through one of two different paths. The New York office attends a dozen or so OCI programs, including most of the top schools, as well as regional New York schools. The Washington D.C. office does not participate in OCI programs, and instead relies on referrals from government employers or law school professors. While credentials matter, the firm also takes a somewhat unique approach in that they want applicants who are already familiar with the corporate world. Interviewers will often ask about top news stories in the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal. If an applicant cannot offer any insight, their odds of an offer are slim. Further, as an international firm, language skills are highly valued.
The summer program also offers spots in the Hong Kong and London offices, but those placements are done on a case-by-case basis. In all cases, the summer program is eleven weeks long, during which associates are expected to complete fifteen or more assignments. Rotation through practice areas is not required, but summers are encouraged to seek work in any practice area in which they have an interest. The amount of work results in associates leaving the office around 7:00 PM most days, and weekend work is not uncommon.
The firm provides for unlimited attorney lunches, with most summer associates indulging in around three per week. Other summer social events include the common New York fare such as sailing, wine tastings, and a Yankees game. In 2009, ten out of eleven summer associates received offers.
Compensation and Benefits
Freshfields follows the standard New York lockstep system in its American offices, with first year associates receiving $160,000. The firm has had a number of upheavals in its compensation system outside of the U.S. In 2009, the firm instituted a pay freeze in all of its non-U.S. offices, which it only lifted in early 2010. Also, the firm had announced that beginning in 2011, the firm would be moving away from the lockstep system in its non-U.S. offices, instead using a “milestone” system that would reward (or presumably punish) performance.
The firm is a follower in terms of bonus amounts, but regularly matches the top of the market. There is no official billable hour minimum for U.S. associates. Non-U.S. associates must reach a 1,800 minimum to qualify for a bonus. U.S. associates regularly exceed that amount of total hours, though like most European based firms, total hours at Freshfields are marginally more reasonable than at many of its New York-based peers. Weekend work is fairly uncommon. However it should be noted that face time can still be important, depending on the partner people worked for.
The firm provides an above-average twenty-six days of vacation time per year, and associates at Freshfields usually end up using an also above average amount of it compared to many peer firms. Other benefits include international retreats and 100% coverage of medical insurance costs for associates. The firm offers a $10,000 stipend and $5,000 salary advance to new associates.
Freshfields has a single partnership track, ranging between seven and nine years to eligibility. Senior associates passed over once will generally be considered the following year, and the firm has no strong up or out policy. Though many associates believe that partnership is an achievable goal at Freshfields, it should be noted that not many partners are added any given year. Also, the firm’s recent slimming of the partner ranks may suggest that the firm will be pickier in who they promote to join the ranks of partner in the future.
The international heritage of the firm provides a strong influence on the culture of the firm. The British influence is particularly strong, to the point that while the dress code is business casual, the emphasis is on the business, not the casual. The firm has somewhat of a reputation for being a bit more formal than many of the fratty New York M&A shops that are its peers.
However, the firm is still a warm, friendly, and social place, even if somewhat formal. Associates regularly socialize outside of work, and there is a strong firm-level push to integrate the American offices into the firm culture as a whole. With relatively smaller offices in the U.S., the firm maintains a fairly nonhierarchical structure, and relationships between associates and partners are generally open.
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