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Irresistible forces – Within weeks of $10m Freshfields hire, Kirkland targets Cravath for M&A playmaker

Kirkland & Ellis continues to make waves on both sides of the Atlantic as the Chicago-bred juggernaut this week announced the hire of one of Manhattan’s top M&A names.

In the latest of a series of headline-grabbing moves, Cravath, Swaine & Moore M&A star Eric Schiele is to transfer to Kirkland’s New York arm. Schiele – who had been at Cravath for more than 17 years, making partner in 2008 – was established as one of the leading lights at the Wall Street leader.

The loss underlines the aggressive inroads Kirkland has been making in New York, including just over a year ago recruiting Cravath corporate partner Jonathan Davis. Kirkland had previously sent a jolt through the clubby Manhattan legal community in 2012 with its recruitment of Cravath.s rising star partner, Sarkis Jebejian.

The move also underlines the pressure increasingly facing traditional New York leaders with conservative remuneration models to retain their top partners as aggressive rivals dangle unprecedented packages.

While senior departures were until recently almost unheard of among the New York elite, another Cravath deal heavyweight, Scott Barshay, last year quit for Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in one of the most expensive transfers ever in the legal profession.

Such pressures are, of course, felt even more intensely by Magic Circle firms with Kirkland in December securing the services of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s most prominent private equity partner David Higgins in a $10m package. Other major London hires for Kirkland include Linklaters’ real estate M&A rainmaker Matthew Elliott and Freshfields finance partner Michael Steele in 2015.

Recent mandates for Schiele include acting for Disney in its pending $66bn acquisition of 21st Century Fox and Time Warner on a string of deals, including its pending $109bn sale to AT&T. He has also advised Honeywell on its $90bn proposed acquisition of United Technologies; Anheuser-Busch InBev on its $123bn acquisition of SABMiller and the $12bn sale of SABMiller’s US and global Miller branded businesses to Molson Coors.

Schiele said in a statement: ‘It was a difficult decision to leave Cravath and I will always be grateful for the years I spent there. But I’m excited about joining Kirkland, a firm known for leading on many of the most high-profile and complex M&A/PE deals globally and with an extremely dynamic team.’

Kirkland chair Jeffrey Hammes commented: ‘Eric is one of most respected transactional attorneys in the country. He will be an invaluable addition to our M&A and private equity practice in New York.’

The spectre of one of Manhattan’s feted M&A operators quitting for Kirkland will further fuel expectations that the 2,000-lawyer giant is set to announce another year of pace-setting growth. The firm was already challenging Latham & Watkins as the world’s highest-earning law firm with 2016 income of $2.65bn after hiking revenues by 15%. Kirkland’s average profits per equity partner are more than $4m, and set to rise dramatically for the 2017 financial year.

There will be plenty of prestigious rivals in New York and the Square Mile hoping that 2018 is the year that the Kirkland bandwagon finally slows.