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Rampant Kirkland surges past Latham to become world’s top-billing law firm as PEP closes in on $5m

Kirkland & Ellis has hiked revenues by more than $500m to overtake Latham & Watkins as the world’s highest-earning law firm, as revenues surged to $3.165bn.

The Chicago-bred giant today (22 March) announced its results for the 2017 financial year, confirmed a 19% hike in revenues against $2.65bn the previous year. Profit per equity partner (PEP) surged nearly 15%, to $4.7m from last year’s $4.1m, making it one of the world’s most profitable law firms. Headcount rose 13.5% to 1,997 lawyers, while revenues per lawyer increased 5.2% to $1.585m.

The pace-setting performance underpinned by booming private equity and leveraged finance markets underlines a 20-year ascent that has seen the thrusting US law firm expand dramatically beyond its Illinois roots to become a potent force in New York and London.

And Kirkland has certainly made its presence felt on both sides of the Atlantic in recent months, perhaps most strikingly when it in December hired Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer private equity veteran David Higgins with a market-setting $10m package.

Other major London hires have included Linklaters’ real estate M&A rainmaker Matthew Elliott in 2015 and Freshfields’ restructuring partner Sean Lacey last May. The firm hit the headlines again in January when it enlisted Cravath, Swaine & Moore M&A star Eric Schiele in New York.

London has been one of Kirkland’s fastest-expanding offices, growing 61% since 2013 to 189 lawyers in 2017. The practice currently generates over $300m. New York headcount has increased 42% over the last five years to 503 lawyers.

Aside from private equity, Kirkland’s restructuring practice saw it advise on standout matters, including acting for Toys R Us on the Chapter 11 filing for bankruptcy of its US business in September 2017, as well as a deal with the Pension Protection Fund (PPF) that temporarily saved the company from collapse in December 2017. The firm went on this February to seal a further mandate amid the Toys R Us collapse, with restructuring partners Kon Asimacopoulos and Elaine Nolan advising Moorfields’ joint administrators Simon Thomas and Arron Kendall.

The achievement of overtaking Latham caps a remarkable rise to prominence for a thrusting institution that has long divided peers into critics of a supposed ruthless culture and the admirers of its driven panache. But critic or fan, Kirkland is increasingly impossible to ignore.

For more analysis on Kirkland, see ‘The Departed (£)