I’m launching a Q&A series today focused on how big names in the legal world are managing their lives during the COVID-19 crisis. I’m exploring everything—how they’re dealing with the intersection of work and family, the impact of coronavirus on their views about the profession, what’s driving them nuts during the lockdown, what they’re watching on Netflix and more.
Today, I’m talking with dealmaker extraordinaire Frank Aquila, who heads Sullivan & Cromwell’s mergers and acquisition practice. Below is an edited version of our phone conversation.
Where are you? I am in Florida—Captiva Island. My wife Cathy and I came down here when there was a flood upstairs [in our home] and have been here since the end of February. When we were planning to leave, New York was shutting down.
Who’s huddled there with you? My three daughters are all here—my oldest with my 13-month-old grandson and son-in-law; my second daughter, an administrator with a New York City charter school and her significant other; and my youngest daughter, who is clerking for a federal district judge. It is great having all of them here, although at points we have had four or five video-conference calls going at the same time!
You’re used to being in the hubbub of the M&A world, doing glamorous deals like Tiffany/LMVH. All of a sudden, you’re on a quiet island in Florida. What’s that like? Typically, I get calls at 8 a.m. and they don’t finish until 7 or 8 p.m. Clients are looking to us to provide support: They’re concerned about the regulatory process, liquidity issues—if they should draw down on their letters of credit—how the CARES Act impacts them. Most are focused on today, the current situation.
Are clients scared? I don’t think so. M&A deals will continue. You look back to the financial crisis during Lehman, and we were still able to close Anheuser-Busch, the largest all-cash acquisition ever. In 2009, when the economy was very weak, Pfizer and Schering-Plough did a $41 billion transaction. We feel transactions will come up, though the situation creates challenges.
But this coronavirus is like nothing else. I have to assume clients are reacting differently than they did during the financial crisis. Yes. During the financial crisis, the financial markets froze up and liquidity was the concern. Now, people are worried about employees, and companies are worried about CEOs and CFOs becoming ill. With shutdowns, you have operations that are closing down, and that has more of a direct impact.
What’s your firm doing to keep up the esprit de corp? There are virtual coffee meetings and happy hours for teams, as well as regular team meetings. We take for granted walking around the office. I’ve always been a supporter of people working remotely, but we now recognize the value of having personal connections. People are making an effort; we involve everyone, including the most junior people.
Is Sullivan & Cromwell still going forward with its summer associate program? It’s vital to us for our hiring. Usually, we have around 110 to 120 summer associate. We’re now grappling with how to do it—whether it will be the typical 12 weeks. We don’t know what the situation will be in June or July, so we’re trying to figure it out.
And what are you doing for personal diversion? I watch [New York Gov.] Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings. I’ve known him since he was a teenager. My mother was involved in New York Democratic politics.
Really? Andrew Cuomo is your idea of entertainment? Don’t you watch TV or read for fun? I watch Netflix. I’ve been catching up on Schitt’s Creek. It’s very funny. I’m also three-quarters of the way through “Greater Gotham” by Mike Wallace, a book about New York City’s history during the first 20 years of the 20th century.
I’ve heard you’re a foodie and wine enthusiast. So are you cooking? And what are you drinking? I leave the cooking to others. I’m picking the wines. I’m a big Joseph Phelps fan for reds and Pahlmeyer for my whites. We have a limited supply down here.
Has the coronavirus changed your outlook? I’m an optimistic person by nature. But I’m devastated by the loss of life. I know people who had mild cases and those who suffered. I’ve known David Lat for a long time, and I’m happy he seems to have pulled out of it. After this, we won’t take everyday joys of life for granted. I hope that’s the lesson we learn—what happens to people in Italy, China , Spain, wherever—that we’re all interconnected.
Contact Vivia Chen at [email protected]. On Twitter: @lawcareerist.