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Update: Freshfields targets Ashurst for five-partner private team as legal elite tightens grip on premium funds clients

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer is to punch a major hole in Ashurst’s European private equity practice with the City giant voting on a deal to take on a five-partner buyout team from Ashurst’s Paris arm.

This comes after the Ashurst team had already approached some US firms, including Dechert, within the last six months. Confirmation that Freshfields is to take on the group represents one of the most significant team hires between major City players for years and comes on the same day that Sidley Austin unveiled an audacious move to ship in a seven-partner private equity team from Kirkland & Ellis’s Munich office.

The Ashurst team has generated annual billings of well over £5m in recent years, the vast bulk of which is expected to transfer to Freshfields in a significant addition to the Magic Circle firm’s much-vaunted European buyout practice.

The transferring partners are Guy Benda, Nicolas Barberis, Stéphanie Corbière, Yann Gozal and Laurent Mabilat. Barberis is the standout name and a key client partner for Charterhouse Capital Partners – a multimillion-pound client for the office. Barberis advised Charterhouse on the purchase of French technology company Sagemcom from The Carlyle Group for a reported €400m in October last year and again in November 2016 on the acquisition of French pharmaceutical group Cooper, which is valued at around €700m.

The departure, which had been expected for months, will put a significant dent in Ashurst’s revenues in its Paris office, which in recent years has generated between £25m to £30m.

It is also understood that partner Nadine Gelli will leave the Paris office in favour of a local law firm.

A spokesperson at Ashurst said: ‘We will continue to have a very strong and well-diversified business in Paris. This will include 12 partners covering restructuring, finance, real estate, corporate, private equity, disputes, projects, regulatory and competition. These partners have played a critical role in the longstanding success of the office and we have no doubt they will continue to deliver impressive results in the Paris market.’ The firm confirmed it expects to boost partner numbers in May.

One Ashurst partner told Legal Business: ‘To some extent, this has been in our ‘share price’ for a while. Yes, we’re disappointed but the partners knew this was coming.’

A former Ashurst partner added: ‘The Paris office is very profitable and I’ve heard quite a number of them complaining about the new management. They were quite angry.’

The move will bulk up Freshfields’ Paris offering after it lost a four-partner team is to Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Corporate partner Patrick Tardivy, finance partners Emmanuel Ringeval and Hervé Touraine and Paris employment head Emmanuel Benard left the French office within a week of a four-strong team exiting Freshfields’ Hamburg office to launch a boutique called Chatham Partners.

Ashurst has lost several partners both in the City and from its international offices over the past year following 2015/16 financial results which saw profit per equity partner drop by 19% to £603,000 from £747,000. Turnover also fell 10% to £505m. Profitability is, however, currently on course for a significant rebound in 2016/17.

Other firms aggressive in the Paris private equity market include Goodwin Procter, which in April last year hired six King & Wood Mallesons partners including Paris managing partner and co-head of corporate Christophe Digoy, Maxence Bloch, Jérôme Jouhanneaud and Thomas Maitrejean, Pierre-Louis Sévegrand, William Robert.