White & Case

Comment: There is no firm in the Top 50 going through more change than White & Case. A few years ago the long-heralded end to autonomy of the German practice was implemented and the German offices integrated into the European practice. Worldwide management had grown frustrated at the lack of progress on profitability as well as in building key transactional areas in private equity or banking and finance. The new ambitious strategy of the firm – which has also included considerable investment in the London office – has seen a number of laterals arrive over the past few years, but more importantly a generational change at the firm.
The changes are paying off: higher-end clients and more cross-border work led to better financial results. That in turn has necessiated a cultural change in the German offices because gaining more work from key clients involves more team work, something W&C, with an individualist and autonomous culture, was not best known for. But the stronger teamwork improved client relationships, thus strengthening business.
The major catalyst was the arrival of a team around capital markets lawyer Gernot Wagner (from Allen & Overy) three years ago. He has carved out a leading position in advice on high-yield bonds, but what was remarkable this year was his ability to acquire clients where W&C ended up acting on the corporate side (Triton was one example). This rejuvenation also reaches other practice areas: the M&A and private equity teams have traditionally been dominated by senior lawyers such as Matthias Kasch, Andreas Stilcken and Prof. Dr. Roger Kiem, all of whom have excellent reputations. But over the past two years a younger partner generation has became more visible in the market: Dr. Stefan Koch (private equity), Dr. Tobias Heinrich and Dr. Tim Arndt (M&A). The firm has also been successful in allowing younger partners to emerge in other strong practices such as litigation, real estate and restructuring.
The new strategy and culture does not suit everyone, however, and there was a string of departures over the year, not only in finance and corporate in Frankfurt, but also at the Hamburg office: several partners from the corporate and real estate practice went to Norton Rose. Indeed Hamburg was further hit by the high-profile departures of corporate lawyer Dr. Volker Land, litigator Dr. Matthias Stupp and banking lawyer Prof. Dr. Kai-Michael Hingst, who left to set up an office for Noerr. There was plenty of speculation from competitors that the office might be closed down in the medium term, even though managing partner Dr. Sven-Holger Undritz is based there.
Lawyers in Germany: 211
International network: International firm (originally from the US) with a strong spread of offices, esp. strong in eastern Europe and Asia.
Developments: There are plenty at White & Case who are delighted that the management has finally taken the bull by the horns and shaken up the German offices. Hopes are high that profitability will increase further. The unrest has been considerable, however, and even if the younger generation in particular sees the process as creative and liberating, the firm will need a period of calm if it is to capitalize on the gains that have been made. The challenge will be to maintain the development of the new international and team-oriented culture. The partnership might be well-advised to look at other firms which have gone through a similar transformation process. The examples of Freshfields and Clifford have shown that it is possible to undergo transformation without too much unrest detracting from client work or harming internal culture, as long as management has defined a clear plan and is prepared to remain flexible in terms of the roles of lawyers as partner or counsel.
Stability is necessary in order to dampen the ill-founded speculation about the Hamburg office. W&C has considerable potential here: the younger partners in Hamburg are much more heavily involved in potentially more profitable international work for global clients than many of those renowned names who turned their backs on the office. The antitrust team is a good example here. These teams need time if they are to replicate the success so obvious in the Frankfurt office.
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