King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin

“No one rests on their laurels” at this firm. The SJ Berwin of old has now joined forces with Asia-Pacific superfirm King & Wood Mallesons.

Please note: This feature was researched and prepared in summer 2013 before the transformative merger between SJ Berwin and King & Wood Mallesons. Minor updates have been made where possible.

What’s in a name? 

On 1 November 2013 established City outfit SJ Berwin merged with Asia-Pacific firm King & Wood Mallesons. The combined firm has (temporarily) adopted the snappy name King & Wood Mallesons SJ Berwin, or KWMSJB for short.

KWM is an interesting firm. Chinese in origin, it never had any partners called King or Wood – they were made-up names designed to sound appealing to Western ears. Mallesons was a leading Australian firm taken over in 2012. The business was already a major force in the Asia-Pacific region – the tie-up with SJB is its first major foray into Europe.

Seen from the other side, the merger sets SJB on a far more solid international footing: the combined firm has 2,000-odd lawyers. It was widely known in the market that SJB had long been looking for an international merger partner to shore up its business. And it's clear that the English firm is the junior partner in the merger that eventually occurred: after a transitional phase the 'SJ Berwin' moniker will eventually disappear from the firm's name entirely, probably in 2014.

Its an early demise for SJB, which was founded as recently as 1982 by ambitious lawyer Stanley Berwin (who had already had a hand in setting up Berwin Leighton Paisner). “We are a young firm that's grown very quickly. Our attitude towards hard work and perseverance is why we've been so successful,” trainees believe, repeatedly describing their workplace as "dynamic" and “go-getting.” One said: “Everyone's very driven and high-energy. We're about moving the firm forwards together.”

Though sources admitted the firm has taken a bit of a beating in the recent recession, they argued that “SJB's desire to push forward is a powerful force. People are very motivated and no one rests on their laurels. We're not a relaxed place. There is a lot of ambition in the air.”

Although known predominantly for its private equity prowess – “which is still an incredibly important driver for the firm” – there are several growth areas at KWMSJB. Graduate recruitment partner Nicola Bridge told us: “We continue to develop our countercyclical practice groups. Our EU and competition team is very highly regarded and we're looking to strengthen the contentious side of our business. Our energy and infrastructure team is doing very interesting work, and we have seen several notable hires in our financial markets and financial services practice.” Away from the firm's corporate/finance core, areas such as real estate, IP and tax also pick up rankings in Chambers UK.

In common with a lot of firms, this one is also increasingly talking about 'sector focus'. It is now concentrating on seven industry sectors: real estate; private equity; technology, media and telecoms; consumer; financial institutions; energy and infrastructure; and life sciences and healthcare, and its lawyers are informally being realigned within them. “It's good for business and a way to create a cohesive firm that makes sense for clients,” interviewees agreed.

The power of three will set us free 

Seats fall under three headings: corporate, contentious and 'other'. The contentious requirement can be fulfilled by spending time in straight litigation, IP litigation, restructuring, employment, EU/competition, planning or environment. The 'other' category includes real estate, commerce/tech, financial markets, construction and tax. “HR says that you'll most likely get three out of your four top choices,” trainees said. “Although that might not be entirely accurate, they really do try to accommodate you and it's very rare that people are upset.”

The large and “very important” corporate department is separated into three teams. They are all “massive, each rivalling whole other departments in size.” Although the teams are distinct, “they are ultimately cohesive and often work together on matters.”

The first team used to be dominated by capital markets and public work, but “as there is less of that in the market, it's now more focused on M&A, real estate finance and investment work – general corporate stuff.” Clients include Universal and Associated British Foods, and the team recently advised Westfield on the £159m sale of three shopping centres in the UK. A very “work-heavy” department, the team runs on slightly “unsociable” hours, however they're also “really great and make sure to try and develop you as an attorney.”

“The second team is the largest of the three and possibly the highest-performing for the firm,” trainees said. The firm advised Apollo Global Management on its acquisition of luxury jewellery group Arum Holdings, and acted for Lion Capital on the acquisition of hair-straightening brand GHD from Montagu Private Equity.

“There were probably times when I had too much responsibility,” one trainee laughed. “The team's so busy that you'll definitely get involved in high-level matters. There's a lot of client-facing stuff, and by the end of the seat you're drafting SPAs and liaising directly with opposing teams.” One said: “Of course, you need to build up people's trust, but the team are very willing to give you experience.”

The final team (aka the ‘funds team’) is the private equity and fund formation group for which SJB has long been famous. Consistently highly ranked by Chambers UK, “this team is almost at the core of SJ Berwin and is incredibly important to the firm.” It is often the first point for private equity clients, who then progress to the second team for their private M&A and investment work. Clients are funds houses, private equity firms and large investors – including those in the financial and healthcare sectors.

“As soon as you enter ‘funds team’ you're aware of the high calibre of the work. It's sort of ridiculous how much some of the partners know,” trainees said. Known to attract “bookish and technical types,” this team “pride themselves on the intellectual nuances in their work.” The work itself “is quite complex,” but trainees are supported through “excellent associates” and weekly training sessions. Interviewees confirmed getting a good amount of substantive work: “Obviously there's admin stuff to do, but the client contact is great and they encourage you to be proactive and get stuck into the work.”

The EU/competition department is a “real growth sector” for the firm. “There are now about a dozen partners,” with two having joined in 2012. Clients include banks, pharmaceutical companies and other blue-chip corporations, and the work has a strong regulatory focus. Sources here all said they did a lot of research and project management of documents: “It's a relatively contentious seat, so there are the standard low-level trainee tasks, but you always feel very much part of the team and work with a variety of partners.”

Michelin-starred squabble 

Litigation is another “growing” department for the firm: “It's becoming more and more established and, although it's one large team, specialisms such as arbitration and fraud are doing very well.” As a trainee “you're doing a real variety. Although there are different practices, the lines between them are very informal, so you get a real breadth of matters.”

Commercial litigation makes up the largest proportion of work. Clients include everything from large companies to individuals, and “the work is also very multi-jurisdictional.” The team is representing tyre manufacturers such as Michelin, Continental and Bridgestone in a £350m cartel case against synthetic rubber manufacturers. “Due to the nature of the work perhaps, the department is slightly more hierarchical and there's less for junior lawyers to do,” interviewees admitted. “The team does really try and keep you up-to-date and they will genuinely listen to your suggestions. You also get a bit of drafting to do.”

The real estate department, meanwhile, has “an excellent client list” which includes Marks & Spencer and British Land. It advised the latter on the £340m development and letting of the 'Cheesegrater' skyscraper currently going up in London. The department is known for its “warm atmosphere.”

There are several overseas seats on offer. Trainees have a choice from Paris, Dubai, Luxembourg, Madrid, Frankfurt, Munich, Brussels and Hong Kong. Several require trainees to speak the local language, but all “are very popular.”

SJ Berwin is known for the drive that has seen it become a major corporate player in its relatively short lifetime. This drive does occasionally translate into “what can be perceived as aggression,” trainees admitted. One said: “I remember hearing the stories when I first applied and being terrified they were going to eat me alive, but it actually isn't like that at all.” Another source added: “Yes, there are a few characters who fulfil that hard-nosed stereotype, but on the whole people are extremely approachable and friendly.”

We particularly liked the musings of this next source, and reckon the following quote is a summary of the firm that's as relevant as any comments about aggression: “Culture is a powerful force, and even though none of us were here 30 years ago it's passed down through behaviour patterns. The firm does still have that dynamic culture. I mean, we suffered a lot through the recession, but people are always looking up and looking forward.”

All agreed: “In terms of general rapport, things have definitely improved since the new management came in.” Managing partner Rob Day took on the role in 2011 and is well-liked about the firm: “He engages and communicates with people on a daily basis. There is a definite push to ensure a cohesive, happy firm.” Interviewees also insisted: “People always stop to say hello or to chat. SJB is full of energetic, strong, outgoing people, so it's never going to be deathly quiet.”

The Banker, the Anchor and the Oyster Shed 

The rumours of tough hours are pretty accurate, however. “Look, the hours aren't great,” sources said, “but not any worse than you'd expect.” Although several interviewees had worked the “occasional” weekend and all-nighter, they “aren't the norm.” Finance and corporate are notoriously the worst departments for stockpiling midnight oil, “but that's the nature of the work. Partners and senior associates do also look after you and appreciate your effort.”

The qualification process didn't get rave reviews from trainees this year, even though retention at the firm is usually alright. “SJB doesn't release job listings because they say they don't want to turn away talent, but all that means is that you have no idea where the jobs are or if there are any at all in certain departments,” one source grumbled. “It creates paranoia and competition among trainees, and that isn't handled well.” Another added: “Applying to more than one department – as you naturally would in order to hedge your bets – also seemed to be a disadvantage last year, as people weren't seen as 'committed' enough to one team.”

All agreed: “We appreciate it's a difficult system to work out and there can never be full transparency, but the way it's run it needs to change.” The firm commented: "The process is assessed continually, and any changes are based on trainee feedback, which we seek throughout and after each qualification round." It kept on 25 out of 36 qualifiers in 2013.

The firm offers a good social scene: “We have football, netball, cricket and rugby teams,” trainees told us. “They're always well-subscribed, and people do actually get involved.” There's also a choir. “It's called 'Sounds Just Brilliant'. Do you see what they did with the initials there? Genius.” Sarcasm aside, “they're really good, and have an external choirmaster that comes in.” So good in fact, that they won 'Singingworks' Choir of the Year.

The most recent big event was 'SJB's Got Talent', which was “a lot of fun. There was singing and classical violin playing. People even choreographed a dance with LED lights.”

Otherwise, trainees are treated to regular 'trainee networking' drinks on the terrace. “It gives us the opportunity to really get to talk to people in both years and normally turns into a great night. We were all on the LPC together anyway, so it's a fun evening with friends more than anything.” After-work pints will be at the Banker, the Anchor or the Oyster Shed.

And finally... 

Interviewees say the people who succeed here “understand SJB's drive and are ready to work hard. It's not all about being the most bookish, or technically gifted; it's showing energy and enthusiasm for the work and a will to achieve what's best for the firm.”

You may also be interested in: 

These firms which – along with SJ Berwin – are considered part of a 'silver circle' of City firms:

- Ashurst
- Berwin Leighton Paisner
- Herbert Smith Freehills
- Macfarlanes
- Travers Smith

Our practice area feature on Private Equity & Investment Funds

Our newsletter feature on Law firm mergers

Key Facts

Location: London

Number of UK partners/solicitors: 93/184

Partners who trained at firm: 22%

Total number of trainees: 77

Seats: 4x6 months

Alternative Seats: overseas seats, secondments

Extras: pro bono – Toynbee Hall Debt Clinic, International Lawyers for Africa; language classes

Chambers UK Rankings 2014

  • Banking & FinanceLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Banking LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Competition/European LawLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • ConstructionUK-wide (Band 4)
  • Corporate/M&ALondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • EmploymentLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • EnvironmentLondon (Firms) (Band 4)
  • Financial ServicesUK-wide (Band 4)
  • FraudLondon (Firms) (Band 4)
  • Hotels & LeisureLondon (Firms) (Band 2)
  • Information TechnologyLondon (Firms) (Band 5)
  • Intellectual PropertyLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Investment FundsUK-wide (Band 2)
  • LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 1)
  • Parliamentary & Public AffairsUK-wide (Band 2)
  • PartnershipUK-wide (Band 1)
  • PlanningLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Private EquityUK-wide (Band 2)
  • Real EstateLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Real Estate FinanceLondon (Firms) (Band 3)
  • Real Estate LitigationLondon (Firms) (Band 4)
  • Restructuring/InsolvencyLondon (Firms) (Band 4)
  • RetailUK-wide (Band 2)
  • TaxLondon (Firms) (Band 4)