McKee Nelson, a fairly new name in structured finance securitization law, is hiring three former partners from top ranked ABS law firm Strook & Strook & Lavan this week, kicking off what could be the largest ABS law team ramp up ever seen by the market.

Joining McKee Nelson are Reed Auerbach, as the New York office managing partner; Robert Wiperman, as partner and ABS group head; and Matthew Joseph, as partner in the ABS group.

"We made the commitment to open a New York structured finance practice and we wanted to do it at the top of the market," said McKee Nelson Co-Founder Will Nelson.

Apparently, the Strook hires are the tip of the iceberg. The firm began populating the new office - which is also the new home of Mckee Nelson's strategic partner Ernst & Young - over the weekend. The space allows for 47 attorneys, so we can expect several more announcements from McKee Nelson as the year rolls on.

"In short order, we will be adding several partners from other firms," Nelson said.

Though forming the securitization practice barely a year ago, McKee Nelson has established a presence in the top rungs of Thomson Financial's league tables. For asset-backeds in the first quarter, the firm came in at No. 4 on the manager side, and No. 7 on the issuer side. In MBS, McKee claimed No. 5 for managers, and No. 6 for issuers. What's most notable, perhaps, is that McKee Nelson was essentially absent from the first quarter league tables in 2001 (save one $248 million MBS transaction).

The securitization group at McKee Nelson was formed in May 2001, mostly through a migration of top name attorneys - including group head John Arnholz - from Brown & Wood shortly after it merged with Sidley Austin (now, collectively, Sidley Austin Brown & Wood).

Along with Arnholz came Edward Gainor, Thomas Lyden, Nicholas Signh and John Steele, among several others, who essentially built the new practice from ground up.

"We made a pretty strong commitment to the structured finance practice last year when we brought on the Arnholz team," Nelson said. "We like the practice, we like the clientele, and we think that it lines up very well with the global financial service of Ernst & Young, [with] which we are allied."

As for Auerbach, formerly a group-head at Strook, the chance was too good to pass up. "It would have to take a unique opportunity to leave what we built at Strook," Auerback said. "My hat's off to John for what he built in Washington. We're really looking forward to combining the efforts and giving this a good ride."

McKee Nelson currently has about 65 lawyers in the Washington area. The firm was founded in 1999 as an independent law practice allied with accounting power house Ernst & Young.

"Adding Reed and Rob is also an extraordinary opportunity for me," Arnholz added. "It's sort of a wish list."

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