Everyone knew it was a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year. Even before Lehman Brothers capsized on the morning of September 15–setting off a toxic chain reaction in the credit markets–relatively few major deals were getting done. But after the Lehman shock, things went from the merely awful to the biblically bad.

But even–or perhaps especially–in the most challenging environments, a cadre of lawyers rose to the occasion. As has been our custom since 1999, we name a group of them Dealmakers of the Year. This time we do it a little differently, naming more, including many who were involved in deals that were really pieces of public policy making, and, for the first time, ranking them. Our order rests on the import of the deals themselves, the role of the lawyering, and the degree of difficulty involved.

Together these dealmakers are an interesting mix. Some were busy getting deals that faced financing, regulatory, or litigation hurdles to the finish line. Others were even busier laying the foundation for the unprecedented run of bailouts, workouts, and rescue deals that have dominated the post-Lehman financial landscape.

This list is more Wall Street-centric than in past years. Generally, the lawyers are older, and the overwhelming majority are men. A few stood apart for the sheer number of important assignments they personally handled-prompting us to wonder whether they ever slept, or whether they had secret identical twins hidden in their corner offices. Others got our nod because of a matter’s unique difficulties or national impact.

There were a few common themes. Lawyers whose work transcended a single practice area rose to the top at a time when M&A, bankruptcy, and capital markets have converged in ugly new ways. And with the federal government playing a pivotal role in economic decisions, the real power brokers could be judged by the number of cell phone numbers of top regulators they had on speed-dial.

In the end, there was no substitute for years of experience. The complicated debt-and-equity hybrid financings that lawyers dreamed up to save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, AIG, and Citigroup, for example, were so complicated that it took investors days to understand and digest the deals.

Clients lavished descriptions like these on their top lawyers: “brilliant,” “legal rocket scientists,” “unsung heroes.” But when we spoke to our dealmakers, what struck us was their relative modesty. Like deal toys and self-congratulatory rivers of champagne, boasting has become a thing of the past. Some lawyers told us that what would stay with them the longest were the anguished faces of their bank or insurance executive clients upon realizing that their net worth was probably gone for good. Now some of these clients may be facing criminal investigations.

There was the sense that history was being made, and that they had been given a hand in it. In the words of one senior lawyer last October: “I’ve been training my entire career for the work I’ve been called upon to do these past few weeks.”

Dealmakers of the Year

1. H. Rodgin Cohen, Sullivan & Cromwell
Bank Bailouts

2. Edward Herlihy, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
Bank of America’s Merrill Lynch Acquisition

3. Harvey Miller, Weil, Gotshal & Manges
Lehman Bankruptcy

4. Lee Meyerson, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett
TARP Program

5. Michael Wiseman, Sullivan & Cromwell
AIG Bailout

6. Paul Glotzer, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton
IndyMac Purchase

7. Francis Aquila, Sullivan & Cromwell
InBev’s Anheuser-Busch Acquisition

8. Harold Novikoff, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz
Fannie, Freddie Conservatorships

9. Corinne Ball, Jones Day
FGIC Rescue

10. Thomas Baxter Jr., Federal Reserve Bank of New York
Federal Interventions

11. Richard Cieri, Kirkland & Ellis
Calpine, Solutia Bankruptcies

12. George Kahale III, Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle
KazMunayGas Pipeline Renegotiation

13. John Finley, Simpson Thacher & Barlett
Mars’s Wrigley Acquisition

14. Cynthia Urda Kassis, Shearman & Sterling
Latin American Project Financings

15. Marshall Huebner, Davis Polk & Wardwell
AIG Bailout

16. S. Ward Atterbury, White & Case
Visa IPO

17. Robert Joffe, Cravath, Swaine & Moore
Independent Director Representations

18. Marc Levinson, Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe
Vallejo, Cal. Bankruptcy

19. Joshua Korff, Kirkland & Ellis
Clearwire Asset Acquisition

20. Joe Sims, Jones Day
Sirius-XM Merger

21. Jeffrey Rosen, Debevoise & Plimpton
Verizon Wireless’s Alltel Acquisition

22. Paul Ginsberg, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison
Triarc’s Wendy’s Acquisition

23. George Bason Jr., Davis Polk & Wardwell
Citigroup Bailout

24. Marcia Goldstein, Weil, Gotshal & Manges
Washington Mutual Bankruptcy

25. Eric Dinallo, New York State Insurance Department
AIG Bailout


Photo: Shearman & Sterling’s Cynthia Urda Kassis photographed by Paul Godwin