When my law firm decided, circa 1990, that the way to future glory was to expand our international offering, we already had a presence in Paris, Madrid and Brussels. The aim was to cover the major European nations which meant Germany, Italy and Holland initially.
Germany was going to be the toughest nut to crack. It had only recently allowed its domestic law firms to practice law in different Lander, or states. If you’d set up in say Hamburg you couldn’t also practice law in Frankfurt or Düsseldorf or Bonn or Berlin, until, as far as I recall 1980. The consolidation was continuing and to the extent any German firms were looking abroad it wasn’t to the UK but the US.
It took us ten years. After seven we convinced ourselves to merge with a relatively niche competition and anti trust outfit, as a stepping stone. Then in 1998 the opportunity to merge with a behemoth of the German bar presented itself. Could we? Dare we? We held secret squirrel meetings in the Four Seasons in Berlin, a recently built show-off hotel in the former Eastern sector. It felt weird, surrounded as it was by Stalinist era milk factories or so it seemed; like finding a Michelin starred restaurant in Basildon.
The management team in my firm, a canny cunning triumvirate, prepped the ground well. We met in groups, in the separate disciplines that made up our legal groupings, testing out the Germans to see how we and they might fit. We had a plethora of meetings internally debating hard numbers and soft cultures. Again management had most things covered.
So we merged, sated on statistics, confident of our abilities to integrate, to bring on board the formidable Teutons and have them bat for us.
Maybe we should have tried cricket as a test.
That was the dawn of the millennium. We went from one name to three overnight; we had offices in Vienna and Bratislava as well as all the major cities of Germany, though noticeably the one in the old East Germany, Leipzig, soon closed.
We’d done okay… until one day a few months later…
‘Have you noticed this?’
One of my partners put a sheet of paper on my desk. Scanning it I soon made out it comprised the names of Germans. Specifically the new German partners.
‘Er, yes.’ I mean I had but there were 170 or thereabouts. And they wore waistcoats. Even the women. And my focus was on those in my area – real estate – rather than the other areas. Let the egos in corporate or the alligators in litigation check the rest.
‘I had a pitch today. Disaster.’
Said partner’s pitches had a habit of being disasters if he lost them.
‘Didn’t go well?’ I asked, ready to sympathise.
‘No we won. It’s just I nearly lost it.’
‘Put your foot in it,’ I tried for a light, jovial tone.
‘No, I mean I nearly corpsed when our German corporate partner introduced herself. See,’ he jabbed a finger somewhere two thirds of the way down the second column. ‘Tell me you’d keep a straight face.’
I searched for the culprit. It wasn’t hard.
‘It didn’t help she introduced herself as Miss Bitsch. It felt like we’d brought along our team dominatrix.’
I double and triple taked – took? ‘How did we not know?’
‘That’s not all.’ He spun the paper round and after a moment made another jab. ‘Employment specialist.’ His voice made it clear that he felt cheated.
This wasn’t happening.
‘Are you sure? I mean, this is the current list?’
‘Oh I checked. We merged with a Marx Brothers skit…’
‘No one knew?’
‘Some must have. They just never said.’
‘Well, I suppose we’ll manage. We just need to be prepared…’
I stopped. He’d turned the paper round again, his finger hovering ominously.
‘Worse?’ I managed.
‘You’ll not believe it. Finance, Düsseldorf.’
We’d worried about Düsseldorf. You just do. Nervously I let my eyes track his finger. It shook. Not a good sign.
I read it and reeled. I met his gaze, a scintilla of hope, soon dashed.
‘The H is silent.’
Of course it was. I read again. There was a lot of work in and emanating from Düsseldorf . We had clients to introduce, clients who would want German finance advice. I tried to imagine introducing my new German partner to my Anglophone clients.
‘And this is…
It just wasn’t going to happen.
‘The finance partners don’t say his name.’
‘He’s known as the Singed Minge…’
Some months later as co head of global real estate I hosted a meeting of the heads of real estate in our other offices around Europe. Relaxing in the bar after some heavy sessions full of corporate doublethink I broached this dilemma that had confronted the English partners. Blank faces stared back at me as the old adage ‘never explain a joke’ became yet another relearnt truism. ‘Surely,’ I mused, ‘amongst 200 something English partners, someone’s name must mean something absurd, phonetically speaking.’
More blank stares. Then… ‘Le Pard is a bit silly,’ proffered one.
The nods and sniggers began. Served me right.