Anthony Salz: the City lawyer everyone wants to hire

Anthony Salz, the finest legal brain in Britain, is planning to retire, but several big name firms are trying to recruit him with tempting offers. It’s not hard to see why, says Jane Lewis

When Anthony Salz announced his retirement as senior partner of Freshfields last year, at the tender age of 55, it was immediately assumed he’d be knocked down by a stampede of offers. Not only is Salz supposedly one of the nicest blokes you’re likely to meet – with a knack of turning clients into loyal and admiring friends – but he’s also a tough and effective operator, boasting one of the finest legal brains in Britain.

No surprise, then, that a tug-of-war for Salz’s affections is now under way in earnest. Salz has been approached as a possible successor for his friend David Mayhew as chairman of JP Morgan Cazenove; Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley are also believed to have dangled senior roles and, according to some, a position at Rothschild is almost a done deal. It looks set to be a golden summer for Salz, who has sensibly taken himself off on an extended tour of India and Bhutan to consider his options. As he told The Times, “It’s quite a tricky decision to take… I have to decide where I am likely to enjoy myself the most.”

Few begrudge Salz his moment of glory, says Maggie Urry in the FT, but it certainly makes a change from his usually “excellent camouflage”. He has the ability to “fade into the background and pass unnoticed” and never upstages a client – “a useful skill” for a lawyer. But never underestimate his standing as a tough opponent. During 31 years at Freshfields, he was at the centre of some of the biggest corporate deals ever, including SmithKline’s merger with Beecham and Mannesmann’s defence against Vodafone. More significantly, he transformed the venerable firm, established in 1743, into the international powerhouse Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, following its 2000 merger with two German firms.

Brought up in the West Country and educated at Radley, Salz was a product of his times. “I came from the flower power, liberal generation,” he says. He planned a career in sociology until his father, an orthopaedic surgeon, persuaded him that law would prove a more useful profession. Salz took to it like a natural and joined Freshfields in 1975. A year on secondment in New York toughened him up and “made me more ambitious”. The timing was propitious, given the boom in mergers and acquisitions that in time became Salz’s speciality.

In 1986, he advised Guinness on its bid to buy Distillers and “was as taken aback as everyone else by the wrongdoing that emerged”, says The Sunday Times. Salz claimed he had repeatedly warned directors of the illegality of their actions – a version of events that conflicted with that of Guinness chief Ernest Saunders. It was a nail-biting time, but Salz won the day and emerged from the episode stronger.

Salz’s main disappointment is that Freshfields has not established a mightier presence in the US under his watch. It’s often said that the mark of a great dealmaker is a willingness to leave something behind on the table. By that token, Salz certainly qualifies: his replacement, Guy Morton, “is a man on a mission” to make his mark in the States. But few people are betting against Salz’s own return to the thick of it, says The Daily Telegraph. “When I was 40, I dreamt about how wonderful it would be to retire at 55 and be financially secure,” he says. “Now I am here, I know I would go bonkers.”

What makes Salz so special?

Corporate lawyers are two a penny. What makes Salz so special? Clients claim it is his bold, imaginative approach that makes him a star. “Most lawyers tell you why not to do something, but Anthony is creative,” says David Mayhew at Cazenove. “He will show you how to do it within the law. And he has a wicked sense of humour.” A dealmaker at heart, Salz welcomes the fact that lawyers have become “central to the negotiating team”, says the FT. He prides himself on combining commercial nous with “a lawyer’s ability to come at problems in a slightly different way” and thrives on untangling complex legal issues, often under intense pressure to meet deadlines. Few can pinpoint any weaknesses. One suggests “Starbucks coffee”, another, “Southampton football club”. His charity contacts say he “gets stuck in”, giving valuable assistance.

Salz is renowned for the apparently effortless manner in which he doles out his “killer advice” and for his refusal to grandstand, says The Sunday Times. Clients, struck by his easy approachability and humour, frequently become friends. Salz’s friendship with Gavyn Davies, the former BBC chairman and fellow Southampton supporter, helped pave the way for his current role as vice-chairman of the BBC and he began his work with the homeless at the instigation of HSBC’s John Studzinski.

Married with three grown-up children, Salz tends towards the parsimonious. Indeed, at Exeter University he was renowned for actually charging his contemporaries a shilling a head for giving them a lift between the law department and the main campus.