SJ Berwin celebrated private equity trio defects to Kirkland

SJ Berwin celebrated private equity trio defects to Kirkland” />SJ Berwin faces losing a grip on its pre-eminent private equity clients following the defection of a trio of its star fund formation partners to Kirkland & Ellis.

As exclusively revealed on (10 January), market leaders Justin Dolling, Mark Mifsud and Richard Watkins are defecting to Kirkland’s London office.

In a surprising twist Kirkland London corporate partner James Learner has confirmed that the trio, which is expected to officially join Kirkland in the spring, does not face any restrictive covenants.

The US firm is now aiming to transfer the majority of the trio’s impressive client list across. This includes private equity heavyweights such as Abingworth, Apax Partners, Bridgepoint, PAi and Permira.

Mifsud was key to SJ Berwin’s successful campaign to win Candover as a client from main funds rival Clifford Chance in 2005. Watkins, who was promoted to the partnership in 2004, leads its relationship with TDR Capital.

SJ Berwin senior partner Jonathan Blake is confident of maintaining the firm’s client list, pointing out that many have “longstanding and wider relationships with the firm”. But any client losses would be a significant blow to SJ Berwin’s funds capability.

Having held the market-leading position alongside Clifford Chance for several years, the group has suffered recently following last year’s promotion of private equity head Blake to senior partner and the loss of corporate finance partner Blair Thompson to client TDR Capital.

Blair, Blake and Mifsud have historically been considered as the leaders of SJ Berwin’s funds team, while Watkins is widely regarded as the best of SJ Berwin’s next generation.

As such SJ Berwin has campaigned aggressively to retain the trio since it first signaled its intention to leave before Christmas.

Blake has dismissed the loss as “inevitable” in a highly competitive market. He said the firm’s 20-partner European private equity team still boasts a number of market leaders, such as partners Josyane Gold, Michael Halford and George Pinkham.

The hires provide Kirkland with the ready-made private equity funds formation capability it has been lacking.

Kirkland has been trying to get a toehold in the European funds market for some time. Despite boasting a well-regarded US-based funds practice and a strong UK transactional team, Kirkland’s only significant success in European funds work to date has been securing CVC Capital Partners as a client.

But Kirkland has been expanding aggressively its London private equity capability, including the notable hires of Linklaters partners Graham White and Raymond McKeeve in March 2006 and leveraged finance partner Stephen Gillespie from Allen & Overy (A&O) a month later.

Learner said: “On the private equity side this is the last piece of the puzzle. Now the focus will be on integrating the team and growing organically.”

But before ending its lateral hiring spree Kirkland has also bolstered its younger ranks. A&O senior corporate associate Rory Mullarkey joins as a partner and Russell McVeagh senior finance associate Philip Crump, who was previously at Shearman & Sterling, joins as a senior associate on 29 January.