When he took the helm at a Chicago-based law firm called Kirkland & Ellis in 2010, with the aim of turning it into a world-beater, few in the industry thought Jeff Hammes stood a chance.

For decades, the most lucrative and prestigious careers for ambitious young lawyers were to be found at the "white shoe" set of leading New York firms — long-established, fed by the best Ivy League graduates and nourished by work for Wall Street's all-powerful banks and Fortune 500 companies.

Hammes took over as chairman of Kirkland's global management executive committee, at a time when the firm

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Kirkland and private equity