A farewell to UK finance work

Catrin Griffiths

For some reason the politics of King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin’s corporate department attracts extraordinary attention online from our readers. When private equity (PE) partner Ed Harris left for Hogan Lovells, the article garnered 89 comments and ended up being the ninth most-read story of the year on TheLawyer.com. When we reported last week that his associate Leanne Moezi was following him to Lovells, the news attracted 25 (publishable) comments in a single afternoon.

All this says a lot about the internal dynamic of legacy SJ Berwin’s corporate team, but what I find intriguing about the moves has nothing to do with an incipient personality cult – it’s that a PE team leaving a London firm for another UK outfit is contrary to the general direction of travel. 

In the past couple of years more than 20 PE partners have left UK firms for US outfits, the most high-profile moves in 2013 being David Walker from Clifford Chance to Latham & Watkins and the Bagshaw-Youle duo from Linklaters to White & Case, and the most recent being from Hogan Lovells – Philip Watkins and two associates joined the London office of Chicago-based Katten Muchin just as Harris was arriving. 

There’s always politics involved with these kinds of moves, but the common denominator is the lure of the dollar. I don’t mean a golden hello here but the way New York law has come to dominate finance transactions.

Most leveraged deals are now done with hybrid or US-governed loan agreements, so pure English-law loan agreements represent a diminishing percentage (no wonder KWM wants a US merger soon). The only future for UK PE lawyers who don’t want to be ruled from New York, Chicago, Boston or Washington is to join a firmly mid-market firm such as Travers Smith where US finance documentation is less of an issue. Former Ashurst corporate head Stephen Lloyd’s choice of Allen & Overy rather than Simpson Thacher therefore seems counterintuitive; all one can say is that A&O will have to make good its promises on high yield.

Oddly, many of the commenters trying to puzzle out the Harris and Moezi moves still see Hogan Lovells as British. The UK heritage certainly works in terms of local pride, but when it comes to PE, Hogan Lovells may be better off positioning itself as a US firm. But I won’t bet on that happening any time soon.