King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin (London)
SJB is the young sister to Berwin Leighton Paisner (born in 1970 and 1982 respectively) and the rivalry between the two firms is legendary. Ever aggressive, SJB was the first of the City firms to announce the significant increase in junior lawyers' salaries in May 2000. The other big players had no choice but to follow suit, with Clifford Chance upping the stakes still further. If you are an assistant at another big firm you should be thanking SJB (and if you are a partner you will no doubt be cursing it) - these were the guys who made the market in NQ salaries what it is today.
This is typical of SJ Berwin's style, a style which may win round clients but often repels other lawyers, particularly those at its larger, older rivals. SJ Berwin shrugs this off as sour grapes against a new kid on the block whose practice is putting many more established firms to shame. It's an upstart, and it doesn't care who knows it. The classy office
building overlooking the Thames, all glass and dark wood, is always singled out for praise and presents a cutting-edge outlook. Some big name clients are in the stable too - including Jimmy Choo, Nintendo, Marks & Spencer and Universal Music Group.
The corporate practice at SJB is everything you would expect it to be - hard, fast and client focussed - although the firm has taken one hell of a kicking, especially given the downturn (i.e. death) in private equity work (although there are signs that it's picking up again, with the firm recently acting for Apax and 3i, amongst others). Despite the added bonus of "two top quality table football tables
" in the department, it's here that you can expect one hell of a beasting and where we hear the odd rumble of discontent. Those "paranoid
" partners have to keep their half million PEP up somehow, you know. The annus horribilis
of 2009 is still fresh in the memory, as are those major redundancies. But corporate aside, there's real estate work a-plenty, and the firm recently worked for British Land on the development of London's latest oddly-named landmark, the Cheesegrater.
So the firm is not for everyone, like Marmite. Its reputation for red braces, power
breakfasts, aggression and long hours appears to be justified. As one
lawyer says, "Yes it is aggressive, but the people are quite nice. It
took me a while to get used to the work, work, work culture but it's OK
". Still, news reaches RollOnFriday of low morale throughout, especially given associates vanishing in the night, "terrible internal communications
" and partners lacking in common civility. There were hints that things may have been changing, and that the partners finally realised that the steady stream of departures and toxic reputation weren't a great ad, but if this year's dismal RollOnFriday Firm of the Year results are anything to go by, there's still a lot of work to do.
Overseas expansion was until 2013 a moveable feast. The firm merged with its German arm (full of handsome men, we hear) a few years back (the niftily named SJ Berwin Knopf Tulloch Steininger), poaching a bunch of partners from Baker & McKenzie in the process. And has kept a beady eye on Italy and the Netherlands. The past few years saw the firm attempt a US merger with several shops - Mayer Brown, Proskauer and Orrick all came to naught.
But the firm finally saw success in July 2013 with Asia Pacific powerhouse King Wood Mallesons. The merger was announced on 31st July, and completed in November. SJB gets global reach, at a cost of sacrificing its name, dignity and possibly its culture. That grinding sound you hear is Stanley Berwin turning in his grave...
Still, in the long term it may prove to be a shrewd move. And if you can see past the slight uncertainty, the work is undoubtedly excellent, the partners can be friendly (and get made up young) and according to one trainee the whole deal is "basically magic circle without the attitude
". We reckon it's a good bet for thrusting young things who want to get their hands dirty (with work, that is). And you get a free lunch. Nice.
For more information on SJ Berwin click here