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Freshfields secures trophy four-partner US deal team as debate over leadership continues

In what it hopes will signal a breakthrough for its US business, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has secured the hire of a four-partner M&A team in Wall Street from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton.

The hire of the team – led by prominent M&A veteran Ethan Klingsberg and including partners Meredith Kotler, Pamela Marcogliese and Paul Tiger – will be seen as a trophy acquisition for Freshfields’ US corporate offering, which has struggled to gain momentum in recent years.

Senior partner Edward Braham (pictured) took a personal hand in the hires, which come after mounting calls from influential City partners for Freshfields to step up its efforts in the vast US deal market. While Cleary is still best known for securities and antitrust work in New York, the group will be viewed as  more-than-credible additions from a prestigious M&A stable.

It is the most significant US transactional move since the firm made its first substantive foray into New York corporate in 2014 when it secured the hire of former Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson senior partner and head of global capital markets Valerie Ford Jacob along with two other corporate partners – Michael Levitt and Paul Tropp. The arrival of Peter Lyons, Shearman & Sterling’s former global public M&A head, the same week and the willingness to pay select recruits above the top of its lockstep were signals that Freshfields meant business.

The hires will also go some way to answering questions over Freshfields’ succession in New York once managing partner Lyons retires, with the 55-year-old Klingberg taking over Freshfields’ US corporate practice.

Braham told Legal Business: ‘We have been growing in the US for 20 years. We are top tier in antitrust, white collar enforcement and arbitration. We started building out the US M&A practice five years ago and these hires take us squarely into the top-tier of the US M&A market.’

Braham pointed to the strong cultural fit of the new team: ‘It feels like they’ve been partners here forever. They have fabulous practices and are aligned in terms of practice, culture and ambition. This is a unique proposition.’

Klingsberg set out his reasons for joining the City giant: ‘The thing that attracted me to Freshfields is that it is structured and focused strategically. They insist on being number one for M&A. They’ve shown it in other areas and pursued it relentlessly.’

‘I have a big client base in the Bay Area, clients including Google and Levi Strauss,’ Klingsberg added. ‘We are going to continue to leverage our reputation in the area.  There are no other firms focused there with such a strong antitrust practice. This is not an ordinary course to lateral development. This is pretty wild.’

The London-born firm has secured recent US mandates out of New York including advising Starbucks Corporation on the $7.15bn sale of its Consumer Packaged Goods and Foodservice business to Nestlé, Novartis on the $5.3bn acquisition of the assets associated with Xiidra, and the London Stock Exchange Group on the $27bn acquisition of Refinitiv from Blackstone.

The additions come at a key moment for Freshfields, which is gearing up to appoint new leadership amid a wider debate about its strategic focus in general and its US practice in particular. There has been some speculation that the trophy team hire could provide capital for Braham to consider another run at the senior partner role.

However, an influential camp has been arguing for a new approach, with talk in recent weeks still focusing on a run for senior partner from Helmut Bergmann, the Berlin-based managing partner of continental Europe. Bergmann has been touted as part of a reformist leadership team including figures like Alan Mason, David Sonter and Claire Wills. Braham refused to comment on his intentions regarding leadership, insisting the team hires were ‘utterly unrelated’.

For an in-depth look at Freshfields, see our cover feature from July