Freshfields sheds City aviation finance team amid wider shakeup of finance practice

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer’s London aviation finance team is leaving to join US firm Holland & Knight, following a review of the magic circle firm’s wider finance practice that will result in a number of partners leaving by the end of the financial year.

Sole City aviation finance partner Rob Murphy, the global head of asset finance and co-head of the aviation sector group, is retiring at the end of the year to join CDB Aviation Lease Finance – the aircraft leasing unit of China Development Bank – as general counsel and chief operating officer. He will not be replaced in his role.

Five associates from his team have joined Holland & Knight’s London office, including William Coleman, who was based in Dubai as a counsel at Freshfields, and Victoria Koob. Both Coleman and Koob have joined the US firm as partners.

Freshfields is refocusing its finance practice on a narrower range of products following a structural review last year, which came as part of a push to boost profitability at the firm.

In addition to Murphy, two further City finance partners are also expected to retire by the end of the financial year, while several other finance partners have been asked to leave in London.

While those affected were informed last year, they have until the end of April to leave the firm. Freshfields’ London base, where the firm has around 34 finance partners, has been impacted more than other regions by the practice shakeup.

One former Freshfields finance partner told Legal Week: “A number of names are in the market. Some of the good finance partners we hear are looking around.”

News of the exits comes after Legal Week reported last year that Freshfields had moved a number of partners in London to its second tier lockstep, with a small number in the finance practice understood to have been affected.

Sources close to the firm told Legal Week that London finance partners had seen their positions reviewed as part of an effort to refocus the finance practice around more profitable work for issuers and sponsors, rather than lenders.

This refocusing saw global finance head Simon Johnson combine smaller teams to create a new four-group structure: restructuring and insolvency; energy, transport and infrastructure; corporate finance; and leveraged finance.

One former partner said: “Finance has been looked at particularly sharply, particularly debt capital markets. Partners are being asked to leave on a negotiated basis.”

Conceding that the City finance practice will be smaller going forward, Johnson told Legal Week: “We had a strategic review and refocused our product offering. As a result, we will be narrower as a practice. From a financing perspective, we are clear about what we are good at. Going forward, we will be seen more often on the sponsor/borrower side of the table.”

Johnson maintained that the restructuring has been positive for the finance practice and its lawyers, who now work on a broader range of finance matters for clients including Blackstone, JP Morgan, Cinven and Deutsche Bank.

He highlighted the positive impact of the hires of former Kirkland & Ellis high yield partners Ward McKimm and Andrew Hagan, as well as a growing list of mandates from buyout houses on finance matters, as indicators of recent success. The firm is also planning to make up a London finance lawyer in its upcoming partner promotions.

“The practice will be smaller – but we believe we have an exciting opportunity and that this review leaves the practice well placed for the next phase of its development,” said Johnson. “The recent hire of the [five-partner private equity] team from Ashurst in Paris reflects the firm’s confidence and faith in the finance practice, and the attraction of our integrated US/European leveraged finance platform.

“Within finance in London, aviation finance is the best example of the narrowing [of the practice]. Rob Murphy is really well known and an excellent partner, but it is a single-partner practice in London, and we want practices that are closely integrated with others.“

Johnson would not confirm how many finance partners were asked to leave or will be retiring by May, but insists the figure is well below 10. Freshfields will continue to offer aviation finance advice from offices in continental Europe, where partners cover the sector as part of their broader offerings.

Freshfields’ City finance practice has long struggled to build a reputation to match the firm’s corporate team, undergoing a number of reviews during the past 13 years. The firm reviewed the practice in 2004sidelined projects as part of a sweeping review of its finance practice in 2007, and in 2008 recruited serial movers Maurice Allen and Mike Goetz in a bid to kickstart the practice, only for the pair to leave 18 months later.

The practice has seen a number of partner exits during the past 18 months – some voluntary, others not.

Those leaving include Neil Falconer, a banking and asset finance specialist, and Nick Bliss, who focuses on infrastructure and project finance. Both were partners at the firm for more than 20 years, with Falconer acting as head of banking between 2012 and 2016. Bliss, who left the partnership in May 2016, joined investment company Oxford Capital as a senior adviser to the infrastructure team.

Other exits include leveraged finance partner Ian Frost, who joined Vinson & Elkins in March; banking partner Jeffrey Rubinoff, who joined White & Case in July, and leveraged finance partner Jonathan Birks, who joined Kirkland & Ellis in December. Meanwhile, Pratap Amin, who headed up Freshfields’ India group and worked across the corporate and finance teams, retired in October last year. He joined Freshfields in 1998 from Slaughter and May.

One ex-Freshfields partner said: “Some people were told they needed to leave, but others saw the writing on the wall and realised they wouldn’t come out of the review well.”