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Q&A: Ropes’ private equity player Phil Sanderson on US firms, Travers Smith and Maurice Allen

Legal Business discusses working in a US firm and predictions for the market with Ropes & Gray‘s star private equity partner Phil Sanderson.

Why did you decide to join Ropes & Gray?

Ropes is an international private equity practice of some substance. The Ropes strategy is very much built around acting for sophisticated investors. When I met them over the course of some time I was convinced that their platform was the right one for me and that they understood me when I was talking about my private equity practice in Europe.

How competitive is the UK market at the moment?

Increasingly private equity has become a more mature asset class with different strands, so not just pure buyout work – it could be special situations work, long term work, infrastructure work, debt funds. All of these platforms mean the advice private equity houses are looking for from its core providers is much more sophisticated than just the relationship with the key private equity partner. It means that there are fewer firms that can provide that kind of service.

What are the key trends in the private equity market?

This year will be a strong M&A/private equity year. A certain number of deals have been pushed into 2017 because of the Brexit referendum that meant that certain processes were delayed. But after the summer clients were saying “let’s get on with those deals”. At the same time there’s a dynamic where sellers who would have been selling their businesses in 2018 are starting to say “isn’t 2017 going to be a better year?” Because some of the unknowns about the market will become clearer and that may make it slightly more risky to hold off selling.

You were at Travers Smith, what’s the difference between working for a US firm and a UK firm?

It is almost inevitable working at an American firm that you have to break through the barriers of some of the silos that are created within law firms. Because to make an international law practice work, you have to look at clients and sectors and look at where each geography, each practice area can add value to that particular client or that particular sector. That almost has to happen to make an international American firm work well.

Should UK firms be worried about US firms making an impact in the market?

Yes. We’re already seeing signs of UK firms struggling and failing. The high class silver circle firms can thrive in the market that we have but they will have to be very thoughtful about how they move forward, about the international piece, about how they can provide the full international level of service to their particular global sectors.

What piece of advice would you give to new associates coming through?

To find opportunities as much as possible, to look beyond the day-to-day legal work and understand exactly what clients are asking for and potentially what they should be asking for.

What will Maurice Allen’s departure mean for Ropes?

He’s already done so much for Ropes. His legacy is strong. There are lots of people, like me, who will take on the baton for the next generation as well.