UK firms’ PE offerings “increasingly vulnerable”: Ropes chief on his firm’s raid on Travers Smith

Ropes & Gray has hired Travers Smith private equity rainmaker Phil Sanderson to bolster its European private equity offering.

Sanderson headed up Travers’ prestigious private equity team until last month, when he stepped down from the role as part of a wider reshuffle of practice heads. 

He had led the group since 2008, when he took over the position from another Travers’ private equity stalwart Charles Barter, who quit to lead the in-house offering for his key client Bridgepoint. 

Sanderson, who trained at Travers and became partner in 2001 has counted 3i, Exponent and Phoenix Equity Partners as clients. After relatively brief discussions with Ropes & Gray, it has been confirmed that he will join his new firm in January 2015. It is yet to be confirmed whether he will move with any associates, or swipe any clients.

Ropes and Gray’s London managing partner Mike Goetz told The Lawyer: “Our strategy is to continue to develop our private equity practice. It’s a key part of the firm in the US and it was a driver for our office opening in London.” 

He continued: “We have a view that it takes time to get the right people. We’ve spoken to other partners and have been looking for a number of years, but we’ve continued to hire good junior people during that time.” 

Ropes says that it currently has a bench of 20 private equity lawyers in London, and 175 worldwide. In the City, the firm’s biggest private equity hitters include Will Rosen, Kiran Sharma and Peter Baldwin. Its clients include private equity giants Bain Capital and TPG, alongside mid-sized firms such as Summit Partners and Vision Capital.

Excluding Sanderson, Travers continues to have nine private equity partners on its books – or 13.6 per cent of the firm’s total partnership. That figure includes Travers’ senior partner Chris Hale and its incoming managing partner David Patient who is set to take the reins at the end of 2014. The group is currently headed by partner Paul Dolman, who stepped into Sanderson’s shoes last month.

It is rare that firms manage to lure established partners away from Travers Smith, although Sanderson’s exit marks the second for the firm in 2014, following the departure of leveraged finance partner Ben Davis for Reed Smith in February (13 February 2014).

Goetz said that UK firms are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with US-based firms, particularly when it comes to financing private equity deals. 

“Many firms have a good UK banking practice, but not high yield,” he added. “It’s an area in which they’re becoming increasingly vulnerable”. 

It is widely thought that the lack of high-yield and US-qualified debt finance talent is one reason why private equity stars have been turning away from UK-based firms in recent years. 

Firms including Clifford Chance and Linklaters have been tapped up for their star private equity talent over the past year or so, with a trio of partners including private equity chief David Walker quitting the former for Latham & Watkins (8 April 2013). Linklaters also witnessed the exit of duo Ian Bagshaw and Richard Youle who moved to White & Case last October (23 October 2013). The pair had previously engaged in talks with Ropes & Gray in 2010.