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Although banks still face a number of significant ongoing regulatory strictures (including compliance with heightened capital requirements) which have placed some hurdles on lending, in general, financing conditions across the UK and Europe are favourable and have acted as a conduit for a significant volume of M&A activity.

Borrowers continue to have the upper hand and are able to drive extremely competitive terms on deals across all segments of the market. Indeed, the prominence of covenant-lite terms within financing documentation is reflective of this dynamic, as banks, desperate to secure the lead role in leveraged financing deals undertaken by private equity sponsors (who themselves are sitting on a wall of money that they are eager to deploy to satisfy investor appetite) are willing to implement ever-more favourable terms to borrowers. The propensity of covenant-lite terms in leveraged loan documentation also reflects the continued trend of convergence between the US and European markets, with both regions seemingly trying to outdo each other.

Particularly at the upper-end of the market, flexibility is key, and firms that are able to provide expertise across the spectrum of products, from US and European Term loan and high-yield bonds, through to Yankee loans and hybrid European leveraged loans with New York style covenant packages, tend to pick up the majority of the work.

This trend of cross-pollination naturally tends to play to the strengths of US firms based in London, who are well-placed to handle deals implementing both New York law and UK law governed documentation.

Kirkland & Ellis International LLP joins Latham & Watkins in the top tier of the acquisition finance ranking, a timely acknowledgement of its pre-eminence on the sponsor side for a plethora of leading private equity firms (including Bain Capital and Apax Partners) which are appreciative of the firm's 'unparalleled bench and market know-how for sponsors' and ability to 'really push the envelope' in terms of robust market terms for their clients (in part due to its conflict free ethos as a result of acting solely on the borrower side).

Other strong US firms include White & Case LLP, which has firmly entrenched relationships with a wide range of stakeholders and attains high rankings across many of the finance rankings; Weil, Gotshal & Manges (London) LLP, which has strong ties with a balanced array of creditor and debtor clients and is well-ranked, particularly for acquisition finance and corporate restructuring; and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP,  whose small finance team handles high-quality work for a select cadre of high-calibre sponsor clients including Apax and Blackstone.

While US firms are certainly well-suited to current trends in the financing market, it has by no means diminished the role of the Magic Circle firms on transactions. Indeed, the sheer breadth and depth of practitioners on the ground in London as well as internationally, ensures that Linklaters LLP, Allen & Overy LLP and Clifford Chance LLP, in particular, are able to seamlessly handle the more complex big-ticket cross-border financing mandates and consequently appear in the upper echelons of the majority of the finance rankings.

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer LLP benefits from a particularly strong debtor-focused client base (including FTSE 100 and 250 clients, as well as private equity sponsors) and as a result is often involved in many large transactions, a fact that is reflected in its elevated position in many of the finance categories. Although it is more generalist in its approach than many firms, Slaughter and May is also able to leverage an enviable roster of corporate clients, as well as often being involved in sensitive matters involving government input.

Against the backdrop of a low interest rate environment and continued regulatory burdens for investment and commercial banks, the rise of credit funds continues unabated. Although these direct lenders remain most active in the mid-market, some of the larger more established players (with huge investor appetite) are able and willing to write larger cheques on deals, either on their own or alongside other funds and are increasingly providing serious competition to banks within the the upper-mid market space.

Unsurprisingly, given the ever growing number of funds in the market and their importance in providing liquidity (particularly to less creditworthy borrowers) the number of law firms attempting to pick up this work has increased exponentially over recent years.

Nevertheless, as two firms that have been at the vanguard of the market since its inception almost a decade ago, it is Hogan Lovells International LLP and Ashurst that remain among the most active in this space  and are able to leverage their strong ties with many of the leading players, including Hayfin and ICG, to ensure their involvement in a tremendous volume of mandates, particularly in the mid-market. Strengthened by a number of notable recent hires including Ben Davies from Reed Smith LLP, Proskauer Rose LLP is gaining increased traction in the market within the direct lending space, as is Dechert LLP, which has effectively leveraged its strong asset management brand to forge an increasingly robust offering in the London market.

Other high-ranking firms include Baker McKenzie and Herbert Smith Freehills LLP  for emerging markets and bank lending (with the latter also starting a nascent asset finance offering following the recruitment of several well-known practitioners from Watson Farley & Williams LLP); Dentons, for trade finance and asset finance; Simmons & Simmons, for derivatives and trade finance; and Travers Smith LLP, for acquisition finance, where it is recognised as one of the leading brands for mid-market leveraged finance matters as a result of a roster of private equity sponsors - including Bridgepoint, Lyceum Capital and TA Associates - that are active in this segment of the market.  Clyde & Co LLP, Hill Dickinson LLP, HFW, Ince & Co, Reed Smith LLP, Stephenson Harwood and Watson Farley & Williams LLP meanwhile are all key players in commodities deals, a discipline that relies heavily on a strong complementary shipping group.

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Legal Developments in London for Overview

  • New revised guidelines for administrators in pre-pack sales

    Pre-pack sales by administrators are now used frequently enough for most people in business to be aware of them and many have come across them in their business lives. A small amount of controversy still attaches to pre-packs, but it is probably right to say that they are now an accepted part of the UK business scene as a useful means of rescuing a business in difficulty and preserving some or all of the jobs connected with the business.
    - Druces

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