Law firms face losing clients in public-to-private bonanza

Law firms are facing the bittersweet prospect of gaining work but losing clients if the projected surge in private equity-funded UK public-to-private deals come to fruition.

According to research carried out by fund manager Isis, there is a swathe of public companies trading well below their asset value, making them attractive targets for aggressive venture capitalists (VCs).

UK public-to-private activity is expected to swell from last year's subdued figures, where take privates made up just 17 per cent of the 525 deals completed.

However, while law firms which act for those companies identified (see box) will welcome any new corporate instructions, it is usual that lawyers acting for the management and/or the private equity investor will gain a new client once the deal is completed.

One private equity partner said: “About 80 per cent of the time, the lawyers acting for a private equity firm will retain the company as a client afterwards, just because by that stage they'll know that business back to front.”

Based on the companies that Isis has identified as trading below their value, Slaughter and May and Allen & Overy (A&O) could face a shake-up of their client bases. Slaughters is already advising House of Fraser on takeover talks with Scottish venture capitalist Tom Hunter, who is being represented by KLegal.

The prospect of losing Whitbread as a client would be a wrench for Slaughters, and indeed A&O, which both picked up work for the client after it dropped Clifford Chance as adviser following its failed attempt to take over Allied Domecq's retail arm.

Clifford Chance must also be weighing up its future with Thistle Hotels, which is currently subject to a bid by Singapore investor BIL International, represented by Slaughters. Last week, the company rejected BIL's proposal to buy up the 54 per cent stake in Thistle it does not own.

In some rare cases, law firms will retain a client following a buyout. Slaughters demonstrated this when it held on to insurance broker Heath Lambert. The company was formed after Slaughters' client Lambert Fenchurch was merged with CE Heath, advised by Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, to form private company Heath Lambert.