Timeline to failure: from the first ever Anglo-China law firm merger to administration - how SJ Berwin sank


In November 2013, SJ Berwin – a UK top 20 firm with revenue close to £200m – merged with King & Wood Mallesons (KWM), the product of a 2012 tie-up between China’s King & Wood and Australia’s Mallesons Stephen Jaques.

At the time, KWM chairman Wang Junfeng and SJ Berwin senior partner Stephen Kon hailed the move, saying it had created “the global law firm for the future”.

Just three years on, the legacy SJ Berwin business has collapsed into administration in what represents the UK’s largest ever legal failure.

The legacy UK firm had longstanding issues with capitalisation levels and, as a consequence, a history of delaying partner profit distributions. Here though, are the post-merger events that led to the firm’s collapse.

king-wood-mallesons-sj-berwin-Article-2017012708012013: SJ Berwin partners approve the merger with KWM, creating a $1bn firm.

2014: The initial post-merger period is relatively uneventful, although management changes and big-name partner departures hint at the upheaval to come.

2015: A summer partnership review sets the tone for the months ahead, while the longstanding issue of profit payouts at SJ Berwin comes to the fore once more.

william-boss-Vert-201612060518January-September 2016: The surprise announcement that Europe managing partner William Boss (pictured) is stepping down after just one year in the role points towards big problems in the legacy SJ Berwin business. And the warning signs continue to mount, with another partnership restructuring, support job cuts and yet more problems with profit payouts.

Rob Day Colour-Article-201610280703October 2016: Events come to a head as, despite the election of new leadership, the firm is forced to put recapitalisation plans on hold after the resignation of four senior partners, including former managing partner Rob Day (pictured).

November 2016: KWM’s China arm swoops in with an offer of financial support, but hopes are dashed once more as partners comprehensively reject the revised recapitalisation plan. As big-billing partners continue to head for the door, attention now turns to the possibility of a rescue merger deal.

Kon-Stephen_616x372December 2016: As merger talks falter and administration looks ever more likely, KWM China begins to put together plans to salvage a pared-down European operation from the remnants of the business. Partners continue to leave in their droves – including former senior partner Stephen Kon (pictured) – and the week before Christmas brings confirmation of the inevitable, as the firm files its first notice of intention to appoint administrators.

Closed-Sign2017: The new year begins with 100 members of staff being put on unpaid leave. Following yet more team exits, salaries not being paid and the filing of a second notice of intention to appoint administrators, KWM Europe officially goes into administration on 17 January, marking the UK’s largest ever law firm collapse.