SJ Berwin name poised to vanish as King & Wood merger vote looms

SJ Berwin is gearing up for a vote on a global merger with Asia-Pacific firm King & Wood Mallesons (KWM) that would see the UK outfit’s name disappear.

The firms are planning to put the deal to partners for a poll in the coming months, roughly a year after talks over a combination kicked off in 2012.

The union would result in SJ Berwin becoming one of four partnerships under KWM’s Swiss Verein, which already consists of financially distinct arms in China, Hong Kong and Australia. Each unit of the combined firm will vote separately on the tie-up, meaning any of the quartet can veto the deal.

While not integrating with KWM’s network financially, SJ Berwin would see its name consumed by the Asia-Pacific giant’s should the union go ahead, bringing to an end the branding used by the firm since its founding by Stanley J Berwin in 1982.

The deal is understood to have received broad acceptance among SJ Berwin partners, who are said to be more content with the tie-up than they were with the drawn-out discussions over a merger with New York’s Proskauer Rose in 2010, which failed (12 November 2010).

The Chinese and Hong Kong partnerships are thought highly likely to approve the deal, but the biggest threat to its ratification is understood to be the legacy Mallesons partners in Australia, who are said to be particular about the firm’s choice of UK merger partner amid a busy period for domestic firms tying up with City outfits such as Herbert Smith and Linklaters.

A number of sources have suggested the tie-up could go live as early as this summer, with the start of Mallesons’ financial year on 1 July tipped as a possible launch date, but this is currently unclear.

SJ Berwin entered into talks with KWM last year (12 November 2012), with the idea understood to have been initiated on the SJ Berwin side by former senior partner Jonathan Blake. Earlier this year a high-ranking team from the City firm travelled to Australia to seek a local deal (20 February 2013), while KWM itself came close to merging with Singapore’s WongPartnership before Wong pulled out of the venture a matter of days before it was set to be announced this March (17 May 2013).

KWM, with global revenues of roughly £430m, was formed in March 2012 through the merger of China’s King & Wood with Mallesons Stephen Jaques (15 December 2011).

Meanwhile, KWM has confirmed the resignation of Australia managing partner Tony O’Malley, who has stepped down from the role with immediate effect and will retire as a partner on 31 December this year. He took on the job just 16 months ago in January 2012.

KWM global managing partner Stuart Fuller said a board sub-committee had been formed to appoint a new Australian chief and that O’Malley would assist in the transition.

Fuller added in a statement: “The board has started the process of appointing a new managing partner [for] Australia and expects to make an announcement within the next two to three weeks. In the interim I will work closely with managing partners and executive directors, under the supervision of the board, to ensure it is business as usual until a new managing partner [for] Australia has been appointed.”

SJ Berwin declined to comment.

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