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Simmons & Simmons has been hit by the defection of two heads of departments and a senior banking partner to set up the London office of US firm McDermott Will & Emery.
William Charnley, head of corporate finance, Peter Nias, head of tax, and senior banking partner Graham Rowbotham resigned last Wednesday.
The trio will set up a full-service office focusing on English law, similar to the London venture launched by US rival Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft a year ago.
Cadwaladers poached Clifford Chance head of insolvency Andrew Wilkinson, along with leading partners from Wilde Sapte, Freshfields and Simmons.
The Lawyer understands all three defecting partners were unhappy at Simmons, which has been going through a two-year internal restructuring, including giving its 50 or so salaried partners full equity status.
Charnley and Nias denied this, although Nias admitted he app-roached McDermotts. Rowbotham was unavailable for comment.
Robert Hodges, Simmons' spokesman, said: "The departures are probably part of the process of change - for some people it is too slow and for others too quick."
He added: "It is inevitable you lose some people. Some of those you don't want to lose, others you don't mind losing quite so much."
But the loss of the three partners will be a major blow to morale at the firm. Charnley, Nias and Rowbotham were rainmakers in their fields and sources expect some of their assistants may follow them.
Hodges also revealed that head of environment Stephen Tromans and corporate partner Mark Carroll are leaving the firm. Tromans plans to join the Bar in the spring and Carroll's plans have yet to be finalised.
Chicago-based McDermott Will & Emery intends by the end of the year to have 20 lawyers in the London office, the firm's first western European base, and is recruiting English law intellectual property, employee benefits, telecoms and commercial property expertise to the office.
US corporate partner H George Mann will relocate to London as liaison partner between the UK and US.
Charnley said: "We all know each other and that will give us an edge. We should be able to run from day one rather than walking."
Charnley said McDermotts had considered setting up in London by merging with an established practice but had rejected the option in favour of starting from scratch.
Larry Gerber, chairman of McDermotts, said: "The English solicitors anchoring our London practice bring a wealth of practical experience and impressive legal and business acumen to the firm. The benefits to our clients with interests overseas are incredible."
Partnership contracts at Simmons do not include gardening leave clauses and the three partners are expected to join McDermotts within the next few weeks.