The big boys get aggressive

At long last, the heavies have finally landed the debt finance partners they’ve been desperate for – and in both instances, they were former lateral movers.

In Skadden‘s case, Mark Darley didn’t have too far to go to bag Clive Wells – just upstairs, in fact, to Allen & Overy‘s Canary Wharf office.

Skadden is the latest US beneficiary of apparent turmoil in A&O’s mighty finance divisions. Clive Wells, part of the Norton Rose quartet which arrived in 2002, was one of Tony Keal’s leveraged team, though it was probably his all-rounder’s CV which got Skadden interested. The fact that Skadden has taken a slew of A&O banking assistants in the past couple of years presumably helped the process.

So what attracted Clive Wells to multimillion dollar profit machine Skadden? Skadden has never quite been on the radar in London, despite its iconic status in the US. The hire of Wells is the third in a month, after the capture of corporate partner Adrian Knight from Shearman and tax partner James Anderson from Clifford Chance.

Wells is a lenders’ lawyer by trade, but Skadden really needs senior resource to work with Darley to support the borrower side. Even a firm with Skadden’s war chest will find it pretty hard to build up a lender practice.

Just ask Herbert Smith, which has been looking for over two years. There’s been considerable market scepticism that they could ever haul themselves into the running, but new Herbert Smith finance head Jason Fox is a man with a mission. He has to be: David Gold has told him to double his revenues in the next couple of years. Herbert Smith’s move heralds a new entry into the midmarket, which will cause a touch of nervousness among players such as DLA and Macfarlanes.

Fox’s right hand man on this has been rising acquisition finance star Malcolm Hitching who – entirely coincidentally, of course – knows Chris Fanner from his Norton Rose days.

And at long last they’ve landed a ready-made team in Fanner and Ian Yeo – proven operators, but who have never had enough muscle behind them. No matter what Dentons’ official line is, its acquisition finance practice is now dead in the water. Five years ago it was the third biggest player in the market after A&O and Clifford Chance. Now only Norton Rose rivals the Dentons diaspora.

Both Skadden and Herbert Smith have rediscovered some aggression. This is going to be a whole lot of fun to watch.