Permanent fixture

He believes that he spent much of his career operating ‘below critical mass’, but Julia Cahill thinks Christopher Kandel has finally found his calling

Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on only his third day at Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, Christopher Kandel is convinced that he and one-time competitor Stephen Mostyn-Williams will be here growing old together.

“I would like this to be the last move for both him and me,” he says before opting for greater emphasis. “I intend this to be the last move for him and me.”

While Mostyn-Williams has made a career out of moving and shaking, Kandel’s decision to quit the London office of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson to join him, is really only the second such pivotal move in a career that started at O’Melveny & Myers.

Since the mid-1980s, when Los Angeles’ dynamic acquisition finance market got the young Kandel hooked, his track record – specialising in complex multi-debt layered buy-out transactions – has been an illustrious one. “I like structuring difficult leveraged finance transactions, putting them together and negotiating them – doing the deals. No one here hires me to do investment grade debt. It’s not what I do,” he sums up.

Baltimore-born but of half-German parentage, he made an obvious choice of associate for O’Melveny to send to Europe. When his time was up two years later, he briefly jumped ship to the London office of Piper & Marbury in order to stay put. (Falling in love with and marrying an English woman fits in here somewhere. She still teases him that he hasn’t abandoned his soft Baltimore accent in favour of learning the local language). Shortly afterwards, O’Melveny abandoned its time limits on overseas postings to get Kandel back into its London office. By this time he was qualified in England and Wales as well as California, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

The challenges of Europe’s multi-jurisdictional deals had captured his imagination. “Frankly, I think it’s more interesting than New York, where you are usually dealing just with the US,” he says.

The firms with which Kandel has practised, on the other hand, have not always lived up to his expectations and he is somewhat scathing of his earlier career decisions. “In a sense I’ve been below critical mass my entire career,” he says. “I guess I misjudged what was good for me at various points.

“I stayed at O’Melveny much longer than I should have and obviously, if this opportunity [to join Cadwalader] had been there when I was leaving O’Melveny, this is what I would have done.”

Although Kandel is keen to point out that he still regards Fried Frank as “a fine firm”, it is no secret that it let him down by failing to recruit any other English-qualified partners in the two years he was there. Not that this stopped him billing around $4.5m (£2.9m) in 2001. But having left one firm that had failed to grow significantly in London, he was increasingly feeling that he had joined the same again, albeit with a better name over the door.

“At Fried Frank it was very hard work. I would be on holiday for a week and have to fly back for a day to deal with something. It’s very difficult being, effectively, the sole practitioner in your area,” he says. It is also difficult to imagine a lawyer of Kandel’s quietly passionate breed not disrupting his holiday on his client’s slightest whim.

He admits: “In some ways I’m conscious that I have to try harder because I don’t have the market clout of Allen & Overy. I like to think that I look after my clients with more individual attention. That’s just the way I practise, but I also need to distinguish myself from what other firms offer them,” he says.

At Fried Frank, that still wasn’t enough to enable Kandel to take his practice to the next level.

“There were transactions I might have been instructed on but there were concerns that I didn’t have sufficient support to staff them properly.”

He adds: “I want to get beyond being a niche player to being a more full-service platform in the finance area.”

At Cadwalader, he is immediately part of a two-partner leveraged finance team supported by the 10 associates already hired by Mostyn-Williams from firms including Clifford Chance, Shearman & Sterling and Norton Rose. “There aren’t that many firms that would go into this in such an aggressive way,” he says.

More than a few clients have pointed out the funny side of this final union with Mostyn-Williams. The two have crossed paths and competed against each other for more than a decade, sharing clients including Deutsche Bank and BNP Paribas. “I don’t think I was very successful in freezing him out or vice versa,” says Kandel.

Yet despite the connection, it took a headhunter’s intervention to get him interested in Mostyn-Williams’ latest project. “I was aware of what Stephen was doing, but not as aware as I might have been.” The pair are poles apart in their personalities: Mostyn-Williams being very much the client-winner and team builder; Kandel the big brain who loves to get his teeth into the most complex of transactions.

But even together and with greater critical mass than Kandel has ever known before, won’t there still be a danger of being second or third choice when A&O and Clifford Chance are conflicted? Kandel looks uncomfortable for a moment. “Sometimes that’s definitely the case,” he concedes.
“Sometimes one is first choice, sometimes second and sometimes third. But I am certainly first choice for certain clients or certain things.”

He finds an example. “One of my clients instructed me on a multi-billion euro refinancing when I wasn’t the obvious choice [because I was resource-constrained]. The reason I was chosen was because the client didn’t know what kind of finance would need to be provided in the end… they knew that if they came to me they wouldn’t have to switch lawyer each time the plan changed.”

Again, when US issues come up, Kandel’s versatility means there is no need to switch.

There is another curious aspect to Kandel’s decision to join Cadwalader, however. Mostyn-Williams has taken up the task of building a European leveraged finance practice in a firm with a prominent restructuring practice that has made its name representing bondholders.

“One way to look at it, is that it’s an adverse relationship,” Kandel agrees.

“But inevitably some deals will go bad on a business level. For me the exciting aspect of the restructuring team here is that we have the back-up when deals go sour on the business side… That is not adverse to the banks at all. Frankly, it was one of the attractions of coming here.”
Sounds rather similar to the A&O line.

Kandel points to Cadwalader’s other growth areas in London, such as securitisation and project finance, in a similar vein.

“I don’t want to be a car mechanic who can only deal with one half of the engine. I really want to be able to deal with the whole thing and the interesting part here is that we are putting together the ability to do that.”

As the interview draws to a close, Kandel lets on that he had expected a more personal line of questioning. For the record, he is a collector. Oriental rugs and antique books are his thing. But for now his focus is very much on regrouping his clients at Cadwalader. He is relieved to report that the phone has already started ringing.
Christopher Kandel
Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft