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Chris Howard’s move to Sullivan & Cromwell is one of the most eye-catching lateral hires this year, not least because so many assumed that he had found a permanent berth on his return to Linklaters in 2010.
The restructuring star left Linklaters in 2004 to join Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s equity following the oversight by Linklaters’ management in not making him partner that year.
Knowing talent when it saw it, Freshfields snapped up the promising Linklaters associate. That faith was not misplaced; in Howard’s six years in Fleet Street he built an extraordinarily successful business, colonising mainstream banking clients such as RBS, with which Freshfields had only the most tenuous connection.
However, Freshfields’ cultural reluctance to build out its finance practice led to Howard’s return to Linklaters in 2010, treading the same path as fellow banking partners David Ereira and Brian Gray, who left separately in 2007.
While some might see parallels with Stephen Lucas’s decision to leave Linklaters last year to build a lender practice at Weil Gotshal & Manges, Howard’s exit has extra resonances for Linklaters. He is one of a group of partners who together built their early careers at Wilde Sapte (now Dentons) and who regrouped at Linklaters, creating one of the most powerful banking and restructuring practices in the City and a strong esprit de corps into the bargain. Those partners include Nick Syson, David Ereira, Brian Gray and Robert Elliott - the latter being senior partner of the magic circle firm.
In fact, it is the Freshfields connection that has propelled Howard’s latest move.
At Sullivan, Howard will be working with a former colleague and banking partner Presley Warner, who joined the US firm in February 2011.
Warner’s close relationship with Goldman Sachs made him irresistible to Sullivan, while at first glance Howard’s connections with UK clearing banks do not put him into the US firm’s comfort zone; recent deals this year have been a number of high-profile high street insolvencies such as HMV and clothing chain Republic. The question is, will he want to replicate this practice at Sullivan & Cromwell? And would Sullivan & Cromwell want him to?
Fellow restructuring lawyers think this is unlikely, not least because of unattractive panel rates. While Howard is at home with formal insolvency procedures, the prize is complex financial workouts such as the multi-jurisdictional Almatis restructuring, which he advised on in 2010. Sullivan & Cromwell does not have a long tail of restructuring work like Weil Gotshal or Kirkland, for example, so there’s plenty of space for Howard to build his own practice third time round.
It’s just as well that his work ethic rivals anyone’s on Wall Street.