Kirkland partner profits break $4m mark after year of double-digit growth

Kirkland-Ellis

Kirkland & Ellis had a 2016 to remember, with revenue rising 15% to $2.65bn (£2.12bn) and profit per equity partner (PEP) passing the $4m mark.

The firm, which in recent years has taken steps to change an ‘eat-what-you-kill‘ reputation, saw PEP soar nearly 14% to $4.1m (£3.3m) last year.

That puts Kirkland in an elite tier of top-earning firms for partners, whose ranks include Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, Paul Weiss Rifkind Wharton & Garrison, Cravath Swaine & Moore and Sullivan & Cromwell.

Kirkland’s performance in 2016 – one that so far trails only Latham & Watkins when measured by gross revenue – affirms its status as one of the world’s top firms, with an enviable combination of size and profitability. Kirkland declined to discuss its financial performance last year. But the firm has surpassed rivals like Baker McKenzie, which releases its numbers in August, and Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom – whose results were reported on earlier this week by The American Lawyer – in several categories.

When looking at large firms with more than $1.5m in revenue per lawyer and $4m in partner profits, Kirkland is the largest when measured by revenue and headcount. Sullivan & Cromwell took in roughly $1.36bn (£1.1bn) in revenue in 2016, a number just more than half of Kirkland’s revenue figure last year. Sullivan’s 800 lawyers are also less than half of the 1,759 at Kirkland, which for the past decade has sought to outperform its peer group.

Kirkland’s quest for profitability has seen the firm cut the equity stakes of some partners, many of them senior litigators, according to a report late last year by The American Lawyer, which noted that top-earning equity partners at the firm could make more than $11m (£8.8m). Kirkland also has a large tier of non-equity partners. In October, the firm announced the promotion of 81 lawyers to non-share partnership status. It takes four years for those partners to seek equity status, with only about 20% making the cut, according to our previous reports.

A decade ago, Kirkland ranked seventh on the Am Law 100 list. Since then the firm has nearly doubled its revenue, increased partner profits by 80% and revenue per lawyer by 45%. By comparison, Skadden, which Kirkland overtook in gross revenue last year, has grown revenue by 35%, partner profits by 56% and revenue per lawyer by 32%.

Kirkland’s biggest news in 2016 was its acquisition of litigation boutique Bancroft and its star partner, former US Solicitor General Paul Clement. But Kirkland’s financial performance was also the result of a number of longer-term investments that paid off in a big way. Perhaps foremost among those is Kirkland’s build-out of a Houston office, which helped the firm expand into the energy arena.

The Houston opening in 2014, with corporate partner Andrew Calder from Simpson Thacher & Bartlett – a firm that Kirkland has frequently recruited from in recent years – has brought the firm the energy transactional work in needs to fund its expansion in the city. Kirkland now has more than 100 lawyers in Houston – a feat rarely accomplished in most cities within a decade – and launched an investment funds practice in the city late last year.

Kirkland’s representation of Energy Future Holdings, whose bankruptcy proceedings began in early 2014 before concluding last year, brought the firm more than $150m (£120m) in fees, while the firm’s bankruptcy practice was on a hot streak last year when it came to advising troubled energy companies. And the bankruptcy well has yet to run dry. The American Lawyer reported earlier this month on Kirkland earning almost $7m (£5.6m) collectively from retailers BCBG Max Azria Group and Payless ShoeSource ahead of their respective Chapter 11 cases.

Meanwhile, Kirkland’s top-flight transactional practice continued its success in both the public markets and private equity space. In recent years, thanks to hires from competitors like Simpson Thacher, Kirkland’s private equity practice has made inroads, representing massive funds like KKR and Blackstone. Last year, Kirkland represented Blackstone in its $6.1bn (£4.9bn) acquisition of physician staffing firm TeamHealth Holdings. The firm also advised KKR on its $4bn (£3.2bn) buy of mixed martial arts fighting company UFC and $2bn (£1.6bn) purchase of cybersecurity firm Optiv Security.

On the public markets side, Kirkland represented Molson Coors on its $12bn (£9.6bn) purchase of the 58% stake it did not already own in MillerCoors, which was shed by SABMiller as part of its megamerger with Anheuser-Busch InBev. The firm also advised Equity One on its $15.6bn (£12.5bn) merger with shopping centre owner Regency Centers.

Kirkland’s litigators were firing on all cylinders as well, headlined by its successful work for General Motors on the Detroit-based automaker’s ignition-switch trials. Kirkland, seemingly always active in the lateral market, also continued to poach partners from other firms.

In December, Kirkland brought on Cravath Swaine & Moore partner Jonathan Davis for its M&A group in New York, while in February the firm made a significant hire in London with the addition of Linklaters real estate head Matthew Elliott.