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If Linklaters has entered the market with what partner Wolfgang Sturm proudly describes as "a bang," Allen & Overy’s 2007 move into Düsseldorf was far more muted. Its offices, a block away from Linklaters, are more modest than the former Deutsche Bank AG base. The only thing out of the ordinary is an electric guitar in the corner of one conference room-the proud possession of partner Thomas Austmann, a keen rock music fan.

It was Austmann’s hire from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer that gave A&O the catalyst it needed to launch in Düsseldorf. A respected corporate specialist, Austmann spent time as managing partner of Freshfields’s Düsseldorf office but had doubts about the firm’s strict transactional focus. "Freshfields was an ideal place for me for a long time. It had a broad approach to the market, which is important for corporate clients," he says. "But the firm has shifted focus to core corporate [dealmaking] areas, to the disadvantage of other practice areas." A&O, Austmann contends, doesn’t have the same M&A-at-all-costs attitude as Freshfields and has a more full-service, integrated platform from which he can develop his corporate practice.

As Linklaters is trying to do, A&O’s Düsseldorf play is about expanding its client base of major corporations. "We looked at developing our corporate practice, and Düsseldorf was an obvious place to be," A&O Germany senior partner Cornelius Fischer-Zernin says. "To me, it’s more important than Munich because there’s such a concentration of listed and non-listed companies [in the city]."

Unlike Magic Circle rivals Clifford Chance, Freshfields, and Linklaters-which all secured mergers in Germany-A&O has grown its German practice organically. This model, Fischer-Zernin admits, has meant that the firm has developed a little late in the German market. A&O’s first priority in Germany was building the Frankfurt outpost, which thrives off A&O’s excellent global banking and finance practice, then strengthening the Hamburg office, which opened in 2001.

Düsseldorf was next on the agenda but, with a relatively shallow pool of potential laterals in the market, A&O had to wait several years to make its key hires. "When you look at who to hire in the Düsseldorf market, you come up with a list of names, and it’s always the same names," Fischer-Zernin says. First came Austmann-then, in January, an arguably bigger catch: Hans Rolf Koerfer, Shearman & Sterling’s cohead of global M&A.

With a client base that includes German insurance giant HDI-Gerling, Koerfer was seen by most in the market as one of the key players in Shearman’s successful German practice. Fischer-Zerdin says he had been on A&O’s target list since 2002 but for many years was resistant to wooing. The 50-year-old rainmaker joined Shearman in 2000 from Linklaters Oppenhoff & Rädler. Although he was part of the merger negotiations between Oppenhoff & Rädler and Linklaters, Koerfer didn’t buy into the Magic Circle firm’s global vision. He moved to Shearman, he says, partly because it had a higher profile in Germany and it better understood the key cultural differences in the German market.

A&O began wooing Koerfer in 2007, after hearing from a contact that he might be amenable to an approach. Koerfer says he found A&O attractive because of the firm’s broader global coverage compared with Shearman’s. "In each of the jurisdictions where Allen & Overy has an office, it is rated as a leading law firm in the market," he says. Koerfer also says that A&O better appreciates the way that he likes to work, principally through a close relationship with his clients and a low partner-to-associate leverage.

Koerfer’s surprise departure has put the spotlight on Shearman’s German practice. Some local lawyers suggest that Koerfer was at odds with Shearman’s German head Georg Thoma, who is also co-managing partner of the firm globally. Former attorneys at the U.S. firm mention some longtime points of contention: Thoma’s dominant position at Shearman, at the expense of other partners, and the firm’s failure to effectively integrate the four German offices into a combined practice. Koerfer refuses to comment.

Shearman’s Düsseldorf head, Hans Jürgen Meyer Lindemann, says that growing a practice with a stream of laterals, as the U.S. firm has done in Germany, means that "maintaining a culture is not that easy" and that "there’s no question you have different views on things." Adds Thoma: "I personally do not think that I have dominated or still am dominating my partners; if that was the case, I think my partners and I could not have built such a superb and most profitable law firm in Germany."

Shearman has suffered some other recent departures in Germany: two finance partners, plus a junior corporate partner who followed Koerfer to A&O in March. Still, its overall track record of building one of the leading corporate practices in Germany around a Düsseldorf rainmaker could serve as a template for A&O and Linklaters.

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