SJ Berwin LLP

  • Overview

THE SCOOP

 

Founded in 1982, SJ Berwin is one of the fastest-growing practices in the City. Since its inception, the firm has grown into a 175-partner practice that ranks among the top 20 in the UK by revenue. In just five years, SJ Berwin's turnover grew from £100 million to £215 million in 2007-2008. The firm is considered to be a member of the UK "silver circle", the group of firms one step down from the lauded Magic Circle, and is highly regarded especially for its corporate and real estate practices.

Starting small, but in safe hands

SJ Berwin was founded by the near-legendary legal entrepreneur Stanley Berwin in 1982. A significant force in both the legal and business arenas, Stanley Berwin remains the only legal practitioner of his day to have been the name partner in two firms simultaneously. Prior to founding SJ Berwin, he had launched Berwin Leighton in 1970, which became Berwin Leighton Paisner in 2001.

When it was founded, SJ Berwin was an outfit with five lawyers and 10 staff. In its first year of operation it brought in turnover of just £500,000. Having picked up major property clients Ladbrokes in 1987 and British Land in 1988, in 1989 the firm advised its first private equity fund: Electra Private Equity. By 1992, the firm had opened an office in Brussels, boosted its numbers to 300 legal staff, including 45 partners, and was bringing in turnover of £24.2 million. The firm opened offices in Madrid in 1999 and Paris and Munich in 2000, as its stature in the UK and Europe grew. SJ Berwin entered the 21st century with a host of new titles, including "Law Firm of the Year" and "Property Team of the Year" (The Lawyer), "Law Firm of the Year" (Private Equity Online Awards) and "Private Equity Law Firm of the Year for 2000" (European Venture Capital Journal). Today, the firm is home to some 600 lawyers.

The real (estate) deal

SJ Berwin may be best known for its property work, where it advises some of the leading names in the sector, including British Land, Schroders Property Investment and Prestbury. The firm's real estate turnover saw remarkable growth in 2008, defying the downturn in global markets with a leap of more than 30 per cent that lifted the firm in The Lawyer's property rankings from 12th to seventh place. Part of the firm's success may be attributed to longstanding relationships with non-debt-driven clients like British Land and the Crown Estate. In early 2009, SJ Berwin was named "Real Estate Team of the Year" at the Legal Business Awards, based on the firm's work on the Crown Estate's £500 million regeneration of Regent Street in the West End. The firm was also short-listed for "Law Firm of the Year" and "Banking & Finance Team of the Year" at The Lawyer Awards 2009.

In the last two years, the firm has made moves to expand its real estate practices in Europe. In September 2008, it augmented its Frankfurt office with a 13-strong team from top German real estate firm Beiten Burkhardt, while it kicked off 2009 in Spain by setting up its first Spanish property team. Enrique Isla, DLA Piper's head of real estate in Madrid, was nabbed by SJ Berwin in January to launch its practice in Spain.

Grounded before take-off

SJ Berwin is also regarded as a leading light in private equity work, and in fund formation matters in particular. Corporate work remains the firm's driving force, and in 2008 was responsible for 43 per cent of turnover. The firm's reputation and work are international in scope. Among recent cross-border transactions, the firm advised Germany-based Arques Industries on its first UK acquisition when it purchased Auto Windscreens Limited from RAC plc in November 2008. Earlier in the year, SJ Berwin lawyers advised property investment vehicle Chelsfield Partners on the Qatar Investment Authority's 20 per cent investment in the company.

SJ Berwin's 10-year relationship with Qantas Airways came into play in December 2008, when the Australian airline turned to its long-term adviser for assistance on a proposed $6.4 billion merger with British Airways. Alas, the deal never made it off the runway: discussions broke down after a couple of weeks when the airlines could not agree on key terms.

Going global

On 1 April 2009, the firm opened an office in Hong Kong-its first outside Europe-hiring consultant Daniel Liew away from Dewey & LeBoeuf in order to lead the new Asia team. A few weeks later, the firm reached into the Middle East, with London-based litigation partner Tim Taylor and Paris-based corporate partner Benjamin Aller relocating to the new Dubai outpost. The firm's new offices are evidence of a wider strategy, in which it can make use of its strengths in private equity and fund formation, among other areas, to tap into the growing Asia and Middle East markets. As Managing Partner Ralph Cohen commented in connection with the opening of the Hong Kong office, "We're moving from being a European law firm to being an international law firm."

Blame it on the economy

Notwithstanding the international expansion, SJ Berwin's UK practice didn't escape the credit crunch unscathed. In late January 2009, the firm launched a redundancy consultation, which left a question mark hanging over 40 jobs in its London office, including 20 fee earners and 20 secretarial staff. The firm also decided to shut down its four-partner media practice, which focused on film finance. The firm's broader focus on corporate and real estate has meant greater exposure to the economic downturn, and SJ Berwin reported a 14 per cent drop in revenue for 2008-2009, from £215 million to £184 million, with average profits per equity partner falling by nearly 50 per cent, from £801,000 to £410,000.

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SJ Berwin LLP


10 Queen Street Place
London EC4R 1BE
Phone: +44 (0)20 7111 2268
www.sjberwin.com

STATS


  • Employer Type: Private
  • Managing partner: Ralph Cohen
  • Total No. Attorneys 2009: 600

Major Office Locations

  • Brussels, Belgium
  • Madrid, Spain
  • Dubai, United Arab Emirates
  • London, United Kingdom
  • Paris, France
  • Munich, Germany
  • Berlin, Germany
  • Frankfurt, Germany
  • Hong Kong, Hong Kong
  • Milan, Italy
  • Turin, Italy
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