Kirkland in mass raid on SJ Berwin for top funds team

Kirkland & Ellis has made a stunning raid on SJ Berwin, further bolstering its London private equity capability with the star hire of a trio of the firm’s leading fund formation partners.

Market leaders Mark Mifsud, Richard Watkins and Justin Dolling are all leaving SJ Berwin for the US firm’s London office.

The hires provide Kirkland with a ready-made private equity funds formation capability to support its already strong transactional team.

SJ Berwin is widely regarded to have one of the City’s leading private equity funds formation teams, advising an impressive client list including Permira, Candover, Apax Partners, Abingworth, Bridgepoint and PAI.

The team, led by Mifsud, notably won Candover as a client off key funds rival Clifford Chance in 2005. Its first mandate was advising the buy-out giant on the final closing of a fund worth €3.5bn (£2.4bn).

Watkins was promoted to SJ Berwin’s partnership in 2004, while Dolling was made up last year.

However, SJ Berwin’s capability has suffered recently following last year’s promotion of private equity head Jonathan Blake to senior partner and the loss of rated corporate finance partner Blair Thompson to TDR Capital.

Blake, Blair and Mifsud have historically been considered the leaders of SJ Berwin’s funds team, while Watkins, who was promoted to the partnership in 2004, is regarded as the best of its next generation.

One competitor commented: “It’s a fantastic hire.”

Kirkland has been trying to get a toehold in the European funds market following its advice to CVC Capital Partners, although it already has a well regarded US-based funds practice.

As such it has been aggressively expanding its London private equity capability, including the hires of Linklaters private equity partners Graham White and Raymond McKeeve in March 2006 and leveraged finance partner Stephen Gillespie from Allen & Overy a month later.

The US firm also hired the general counsel and managing director of US hedge fund Shumway Capital Partners, Sam Pakbaz, in July 2006 and promoted seven corporate associates in London to its partnership last October.

Kirkland London corporate partner James Learner said: “It’s an honour to have lawyers of this stature join our partnership.”

SJ Berwin senior partner Jonathan Blake, said: “We are grateful to Mark, Richard and Justin for the important contribution that they have made to the development of our market leading pan-European private equity fund formation practice at SJ Berwin.

“We will be sorry to see them go, but when you have a European team of 20 partners, it is inevitable that, from time to time, some will be attracted by new opportunities elsewhere. “