Legal Business Blogs

Talk of the town: Why Kirkland/Paul Weiss underlines the value of controlling the management message

Clandestine conversations, a recruitment strategy on steroids, eye-watering salaries and internal politics galore, the Paul Weiss/Kirkland story has enough drama in it to keep the attention of even those outside the legal market.

For City partners, the interest in what’s going on has been off the scale.

While there had been rumblings of discontent in the Kirkland ranks for some time, Paul Weiss swooping in for one of London’s most high-profile debt partners in Neel Sachdev was a headline move to surprise even the most seasoned City-watcher.

Paul Weiss has managed to out-Kirkland Kirkland with its torrent of targeted investment.

Going on to recruit an entire fantasy football squad from an array of top firms over the next six months – not to mention the very public leaking of the factors that drove Sachdev and M&A partner Roger Johnson into the arms of their elite New York suitor – took interest to a new level.

With its aggressive – and seemingly insatiable – lateral recruitment strategy, Kirkland has long been one of those firms that rivals love to criticise; an outlier in terms of its volumes of talent acquisition, even in busy recruitment markets. Yet after years of speculation, but almost no sign of any action, Paul Weiss has managed to out-Kirkland Kirkland with its torrent of targeted investment in London.

Here’s the thing, though; even with 12 partner departures to Paul Weiss alone, Kirkland was still one of the fastest growing firms by partner count last year, as our Global London survey highlights. And, if anything, its resolve to keep building up around private equity only appears to have been strengthened. No need for rallying the troops or worries about how to rebuild for a firm with the scale, bench strength and, crucially, the profitability of Kirkland – it will no doubt remain as big a draw as ever.

The same is not true of some of the other firms to have been plundered by Paul Weiss, however.

Overall recruitment may have slowed across the Global London firms, but there’s still very much a war for talent at the top end of the market, particularly in areas such as PE. It isn’t so much between Paul Weiss and Kirkland though – it’s between them and everyone else who wants to stay in this game but who doesn’t have the profitability or the partnership buy-in to throw money at the problem. And such a bold play by Paul Weiss means this could now include top US firms in London, as well as the proud but less-profitable UK leaders, which have been the primary target for talent poaching for so long.

But while Kirkland will, of course, be more than just fine after all of this has died down, it has had to face up to an unprecedented level of scrutiny into its culture, including questions about just how involved the London office is in decisions around recruitment and the extent of divisions within its partnership.

You can read both sides of the story in our feature, but there are clearly some very sage lessons for all firms around communication here. Just ask Allen & Overy’s outgoing senior partner Wim Dejonghe (see Life During Law), who learnt some hard lessons about communication during the firm’s failed talks with O’Melveny & Myers – consult too early and too widely and risk a handful of discordant voices scuppering things; or, as with Kirkland, fail to bring everyone along and prepare to deal with the fallout.