The law firm boss leaving the City for a homecoming

Elizabeth Fournier
After nine years at Freshfields, Ted Burke tells Elizabeth Fournier why he’s going in-house

IF strong law firms are built on their client relationships, then Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer must have some very solid foundations. In one of the longest-standing and enduring client-law firm relationships on record, Freshfields can trace its origins all the way back to 1743, when a solicitor named Samuel Dodds began acting for the Bank of England.

More than 250 years later, the links between the two are as strong as ever, with Freshfields advising on the Bank’s funding for lending and special liquidity schemes, as well as during the collapse of both Lehman Brothers and Bradford & Bingley.

It’s this sort of anecdote that Ted Burke – the firm’s global CEO and self-confessed history buff – loves to tell.

Last month, Burke, who joined Freshfields’ burgeoning New York practice in 1998 and has led the firm from London for the past eight years, surprised the sector by announcing he would relinquish his post next year to join Boston-based private equity firm ArcLight Capital. But to the amiable Massachusettsan the move makes perfect sense. “I’ve known the founder for 20 years, and I’ve worked with many of the people at that firm for almost that long,” Burke says of the long-term client, where he will become general counsel sometime in the first quarter of 2014. “Joining ArcLight was something I had hoped I would be able to do some day, and it worked out that I really needed to make the decision ... sooner than the end of my term.”

He admits it’ll be a welcome return to the everyday practice of law, having missed his transactional work during his two terms leading Freshfields – as well as something of a homecoming.

But before Burke heads back across the pond he’s got at least three months left at Freshfields (his leaving date sometime in the first quarter is as yet unconfirmed) – plenty of time to enjoy the return to activity that’s been missing during much of his time in London.

“We’re definitely seeing signs of recovery and seeing transactional activity pick up around the world – as well as restructuring activity slowing down,” he says. I’ve given up trying to tell what drives the market – I think there are these animal instincts and at some point people get tired of pessimism and are galvanised into action.”

It’s a stark contrast to the work that’s kept law firms busy for the last five-or-so years, with demand for regulatory advice and dispute resolution offsetting the drop in corporate deals. Freshfields has emerged better than some – partly because it got its staff restructuring out of the way in 2006-7, when it shed 100 equity partners – but also, Burke says, because it was ready.

“I’m by no means saying we called the financial crisis, but we were preparing for a downturn, no question about it,” he says. “There were plenty of signs that the markets were fragile so we worked hard at creating so-called sleeper cells to make sure we had partners across different practice groups who were able to deal with the change in activity. 2008 was a watershed moment for the legal sector – things have not been the same and will not ever be the same again.”

Though his time as chief executive has meant juggling travel commitments with partner meetings and client relationships, Burke has also found time to indulge his passion for history, helping to put together a short film documenting past partners’ reflections on their time on Fleet Street. The project saw over 200 hours of interviews recorded, with some memories going back as far the 1930s.

He counts it as one of his highlights at Freshfields – along with the firms’ involvement in last year’s Olympics, and the opportunities he’s had to travel and meet partners across the world – all 400-plus of them.

When he leaves next year, he’ll be in good company. Freshfields’ partners have a history of moving on from the firm to high-profile careers perfectly suited to their experience. Corporate partner Graham Nicholson is now chief legal adviser at the Bank of England, while former London managing partner Tim Jones – an ex-Welsh Rugby international who ran the firm’s involvement in London 2012 – left last month to become general counsel for England Rugby 2015. And Anthony Salz, who phoned Burke back in 2005 to let him know he was in the running for the top job, ran last year’s internal investigation at Barclays following the Libor-rigging scandal.

Though Burke’s wife, mother and youngest son all suggested he go into teaching – history of course (“I’m interested in teaching, although I have no skills to do it”), he is insistent there’s nowhere he’d rather be than ArcLight. “I talk a lot about the Freshfields bubble,” he says. “It’s a tremendous working environment which makes it very hard to leave. But I think I’m finding something very similar at ArcLight.”

Education: BA from the University of Vermont and a Juris Doctor (JD) from Georgetown University Law Center

1986: Joins Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy in New York

1994: Becomes a partner at Milbank

1998: Joined Freshfields as a partner in the firm’s New York office

2001: Became managing partner of Freshfields’ US offices

2006: Moves to London office after he is elected as chief executive and global managing partner of the firm

Married with three children – two of whom study at university in the US

Golf, skiing, and history research and reading - he helped put together a video history of Freshfields