It is generally assumed that running a team of journalists or footballers is difficult, but imagine trying to manage a bunch of lawyers: not only are they smart and terribly ambitious, but put one foot wrong and they'll probably try to sue you.
Ted Burke, the global managing partner of Freshfields, an international law firm, seems to relish the challenge, describing it as a "great job".
He heads one of the oldest law firms in the world, dating back to 1743 in the City of London, where it began representing the Bank of England, a client it retains to this day. It now has offices in 20 countries around the world, although nearly all the growth has been in the past 40 years. In 1970 it still had only 20 partners, a figure that has boomed since the Big Bang in the City of London, with the firm now employing more than 2,000 lawyers. Fewer than a third of these are in London, so Mr Burke says Freshfields is a truly global firm.
"We want to be an international firm with an international outlook, but really attuned to the local culture," he says. He is a fan of globalisation and believes the earth is truly flat and likes the idea of "levelling the playing field for the world".
So what is the trick to managing all these talented individuals? How did they cope with the recession, and where are the opportunities ahead?
What effect did the global downturn have on your business?
Nothing compares to that sort of crash. It's the worst I've seen in my career. It chilled quite a bit of transactional activity, but we remained busy during the crisis doing restructuring work especially for governments and others.
So, as I suspected, the downturn wasn't too bad for lawyers?
It was bad, not horrible, but bad. Our business definitely decreased, but we took the long-term view and did not lay anybody off and got through the downturn.
Still a partnership?
Yes, we are a true global partnership, not a franchise.
What are the challenges of running a global firm?
Sometimes it's hard to fit all the practices in at the same time. Some may be doing well, others not so well. It's a challenge but we do do it. One of the other things that has struck me is the fact you have to deal with all sorts of global issues, natural disasters such as happened in Japan or the political unrest in the Middle East as we are seeing now, and you have to respond to those issues in a way that you wouldn't if you were a domestic firm in New York City.
So how do you deal with natural disasters such as occurred in Japan?
First and foremost, we worry about the health and safety of our people. I was in the New York office during 9/11. As the towers came down, we went through the health and safety issues for our people, but also tried to stay open for our clients. We try never to shut down. I was reminded of some of those issues when the earthquake occurred in Japan. Did our people want to leave the city or not? But we were also thinking about our clients and indeed we did stay open for business. If you are going to open anywhere, you need to accept all the risks that go with being local, and you cannot operate on a different basis or you won't be successful. But it made me aware of the risks of having offices in multiple countries.
Where do you have offices in the Middle East?
Riyadh, Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
How did you cope with the turmoil in Bahrain?
We still have people on the ground. There has been unrest and we were concerned, but our people are all back working and we take the long-term view. I think there are risks throughout the region associated with transactional work, so we'll be seeing less inbound investment work and a little bit less outbound investment work because the money will be focused on this region itself. But other areas such as dispute resolution, litigation and arbitration, those areas are quite active.
Has Freshfields ever expanded and then left?
It is rare. It has happened in a couple of instances where it didn't quite work for our firm. We pulled out of Prague and Budapest and the lawyers there did spin-offs. We also closed down in Singapore because the mix of work was not right for us at the time.
What is the Freshfields culture?
There is a true commitment to excellence. If you look at the league tables you will see that we are competing at the highest level, so we think that our legal work is at the highest possible level, but there's a human quality to the firm. We develop close relationships with the clients and deliver our work in a human way.
Is getting around sanctions a growth area for you?
It's been the biggest growth area for us. If you look at the regulators you can see the amount of fines imposed has increased tenfold in past four years, particularly in corruption areas. There's been a huge increase in the amount of investigations and amount of fines. We have found that people prefer to hire one law firm and not five different ones in all the jurisdictions.
Where is the next office?
That depends. Maybe Asia, possibly Middle East or Brazil. We take it very seriously because we take the long-term view.