Kevin Morris, a prominent Kirkland & Ellis private equity partner, died this past weekend at age 46 after a three-year battle with brain cancer.
One of a small number of African American dealmakers in Big Law, Morris distinguished himself representing large private equity firms like Bain Capital partners, Monomoy Capital Partners, and Oaktree Capital Management.
Morris joined Kirkland & Ellis in 2002 after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School. He specialized in complex business transactions, including private equity transactions, leveraged and strategic acquisitions, recapitalizations and joint ventures.
Morris made a lasting impression on his Kirkland colleagues.
“We’re very proud and fortunate to have him as our partner,” said Kirkland’s Richard Porter, who has worked alongside Morris since Morris’ start at the firm nearly two decades ago.
“He was a special guy and it’s a real loss for us, it’s a loss for his family, it’s a loss for the community,” said Porter, a corporate partner.
Partner and Coach
Raised on the South Side of Chicago, Morris was a “scrappy, middle-class kid” who had big dreams, a competitive spirit, and the intellect needed to become a world-class dealmaker, Porter said.
Morris attended McDade Classical School and Kenwood Academy in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood before moving with his family to a small town near South Bend, Ind. He was a starting safety on his high school football team, a position he would also play as an undergraduate at Butler University.
While getting his MBA at Butler, Morris became the football team’s graduate assistant coach, a role he’d reprise on his son’s elementary and middle school football teams.
After a stint outside the legal profession, Morris enrolled at the University of Chicago Law School and then joined Kirkland’s Chicago office where he remained throughout his career.
“I had the opportunity to work with him pretty much from his first day in the office,” Porter recalled. Over the last 17 years the pair spent thousands of hours working on countless deals. As time progressed, Porter said Morris took more and more of a leading role.
“So much of what makes you a good deal lawyer is having other people in the room look to you as a person that understands the problems and will find a solution to them and he conveyed that level of confidence and competence and intelligence and that was why he succeeded,” Porter said.
Porter also praised Morris’ natural abilities as a coach, which were on display when Morris served as a member of Kirkland’s Chicago recruiting committee and associate review committee.
“He took associates of every background under his wing who he thought had potential and would coach them and give them advice on how to succeed and how to become better lawyers,” Porter said.
In his nearly two-decade career at Kirkland, Morris had a role in some of the more notable deal work at a firm that has become increasingly famous for its transactional and private equity prowess.
He was part of the Kirkland team that represented Bain Capital in its $6 billion purchase of Toys R Us with KKR as well as its $1.9 billion cash buyout and restructuring of Guitar Center. He also represented Oaktree Capital Management in its recapitalization of Tumi Inc. and subsequent sale to London-based private equity firm Doughty Hanson & Co. He worked with Sara Lee in its $545 million sale of its North American refrigerated dough business to Ralcorp Holdings Inc.
Morris handled several key transactions for New York private equity firm Monomoy Capital Partners, including its acquisition of Cobra Electronics Corp., Denimatrix S.A. and radar detector manufacturer Escort Inc. for $78.5 billion.
“Kevin was a tremendous part of Monomoy’s success over the past 15 years,” said Stephen Presser, founding partner of Monomoy, in a statement. “We were so lucky to have the opportunity to work with him and we will miss him more than words can say.”
In February 2017 Morris discovered he had a brain tumor and underwent surgery and chemotherapy, but he wasn’t going to let it stand in his way, Porter said.
“His demeanor was always, I’m coming back, I’m coming back,” Porter said. “He was a fighter.”
Beyond his work at the firm, Morris was also member of the board of trustees for Butler University, a member of the Advisory Board for the Butler Business Consulting Group, and a member of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.
Morris is survived by his wife, Tonya, and their son, Christian. A scholarship is being established at Butler University to honor his legacy. Donations can be made here.