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Paul Weiss raids rival Kirkland for top lawyers in London and US

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US law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison has launched an international raid on larger rival Kirkland & Ellis, poaching a number of private equity specialists as the battle for top lawyers intensifies.

Paul Weiss, which is based in New York, is hiring at least four partners that advise private equity firms from Kirkland’s London office, including debt financing specialist Neel Sachdev. The firm is also expected to hire Roger Johnson, a former senior partner at Kirkland who left the firm this month.

Paul Weiss has also poached a team of Los Angeles-based lawyers from Kirkland led by Eric Wedel, and is in talks to a hire a number of other partners from that office, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The swoop comes just days after the head of Paul Weiss’s London office Alvaro Membrillera, who is also a private equity lawyer, was poached to join Kirkland with one other partner.

The battle for talent underscores the demand for leading private equity lawyers, who can fetch annual pay packages of up to $20mn, rivalling top bankers.

Law firms have benefited from the emergence of private equity as a big source of dealmaking, building extensive relationships that give a consistent flow of work even if the pace of new transactions slows.

Kirkland made an industry-leading $6.5bn in net revenues in 2022, in part thanks to a business that has catered to the rapid expansion of the private equity industry over the past three decades. 

Partners at Kirkland earned $7.5mn on average last year, the highest of any law firm, according to data provider The American Lawyer, compared with $5.7mn at Paul Weiss. Pay for star lawyers can be significantly higher.

US firms also pay substantially more than the leading UK “magic circle” law firms. UK market leader Freshfields recently said it paid its partners £2.1mn on average. This difference has made it easier for US firms to poach top lawyers from UK rivals.

Kirkland has come to dominate the UK private equity market over the past few years after it hired lawyers including David Higgins and Adrian Maguire from Freshfields.

Sachdev is leaving Kirkland after more than 20 years at the firm, where he played an important role in building its business in Europe. He advises private equity groups on the financing of leveraged buyouts, with clients including Bain Capital, BC Partners and Warburg Pincus. Johnson’s clients include EQT.

Membrillera, who is joining Kirkland, has worked closely with clients such as KKR and General Atlantic.

Other partners joining Paul Weiss in London include capital markets specialists Matthew Merkle and Deirdre Jones and debt finance partner Kanesh Balasubramaniam, according to people familiar with the details.

Paul Weiss and Sachdev declined to comment. Johnson did not respond to a request for comment. Kirkland said it appreciated its departing lawyers “contributions to the partnership and [wishes] them the best at their new firm”.

Paul Weiss is one of Wall Street’s best-known law firms, with US private equity giant Apollo Global Management among its clients and deep links to the US Democratic party. Its senior ranks include the brother of US senate majority leader Chuck Schumer.

The firm, led by Brad Karp, counts superstar mergers and acquisitions lawyer Scott Barshay among its partners. Paul Weiss also hired Morgan Stanley’s M&A chair Rob Kindler in June. The firm has a relatively small presence in London, employing more than 30 lawyers, according to its website.

Additional reporting by Kaye Wiggins

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