James Woolery
James Woolery ()

Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft has named corporate cochair James Woolery to become head of the firm.

Woolery, a 44-year-old Kentucky native and former business development chair at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, left his role as cohead of North American M&A at JPMorgan Chase last year to become Cadwalader’s first deputy chair. He’ll officially succeed W. Christopher White as chairman on Jan. 1, 2015.

An M&A veteran—Woolery led teams of Cadwalader corporate lawyers last year advising Irish drugmaker Elan in a takeover battle that ended with its $6.7 billion cash-and-stock sale to U.S. generic pharmaceutical maker Perrigo and Air Products and Chemicals as hedge fund magnate William Ackman took a 9.8 percent stake worth $2.2 billion in the industrial gas company—Cadwalader’s new leader is keen on building a top-flight transactional practice.

“The market is up, and there’s an appetite for transactions,” says Woolery, noting that he wants Cadwalader to be among the “elite” firms that clients seek out for corporate work. “I think 2014 is going to be a real growth year.”

Woolery, the son of retired Ashland, Ky.–based attorney Robert Woolery II and distant cousin of former “Love Connection” host Chuck Woolery, will continue to advise M&A clients after assuming leadership of Cadwalader. White, 63, will cede the managing partner role he also currently holds to Cadwalader corporate partner Patrick Quinn.

While Quinn will take an “inward-facing” administrative and operational role, Woolery will effectively be the face of the firm as he strives to implement a “market-oriented model” at Cadwalader. The firm is known for its “eat-what-you-kill” compensation system that differs from the lockstep model at Cravath, which Woolery left for JPMorgan three years ago this month.

Woolery says there was no set “preplanned timetable” for his becoming Cadwalader’s next chairman. That destiny was sealed Thursday, when the firm’s management committee approved a new leadership structure put forth by White that calls for Woolery and Quinn—Cadwalader’s capital markets cochair, where he leads the commercial mortgage–backed securities practice—to take control of the firm in a year.

White tells The Am Law Daily that Woolery’s ascension to the top leadership role at Cadwalader was part of a natural progression that had been in the works since Woolery joined the firm in February 2013. The leadership change marks a departure from the rough transition that saw White become Cadwalader’s chairman and managing partner in 2008 following the ouster of predecessor Robert Link Jr., according to our previous reports. (Link is now retired.)

At the time, Cadwalader was roiling from the collapse of the mortgage securitization market, forcing the firm to let go of more than 130 associates in order to stabilize its balance sheet amid the onset of the global economic downturn. That controversial decision—the subject of a September 2008 feature story in The American Lawyer—was copied over the next two years by dozens of Am Law 200 firms.

More than five years later, Cadwalader has righted the ship. The 435-lawyer firm saw gross revenue rise for the first time in three years from $448.5 million in 2011 to $466.5 million in 2012, while profits per partner jumped 11.6 percent to $2.65 million, according to The American Lawyer’s most recent Am Law 100 data. Cadwalader also matched the associate bonus scale for Wall Street firms set last month by Woolery’s former firm Cravath, and promoted five attorneys to partner on Jan. 1.

Cadwalader has remained active in the lateral market, offsetting the loss of former bankruptcy coheads George Davis and John Rapisardi for O’Melveny & Myers—the duo took partners Peter Friedman and Zachary Smith with them last year—by reorienting the practice toward Europe and adding former Latham & Watkins partner Holly Neavill and Richards Kibbe & Orbe partner Louisa Watts in London.

Just this week, Cadwalader picked up an International Trade Commission practice through its hire of Morrison & Foerster patent litigation partners Alexander Hadjis and Kristin Yohannan in Washington, D.C., where the latter has joined as special counsel. Cadwalader also poached Mayer Brown structured finance head Bruce Bloomingdale and partner Jeremiah Wagner in London last summer, as well as former Katten Muchin Rosenman executive employment chair Steven Eckhaus to launch and head its executive compensation and benefits practice in New York.

White says that despite the hires, Cadwalader’s roughly 55-member equity partnership remains relatively small when compared to its Wall Street competitors.

“We’re very focused on improving the quality of our work, but we want to get better, not bigger,” says White, noting that Cadwalader is not currently considering any merger options, despite the bevy of tie-ups involving Am Law 200 firms over the past year. The Swiss verein, a structure used in many a large firm mega-merger in recent years, is one that White and his Cadwalader colleagues “don’t consider useful” to the way they want to practice law.

Asked whether he will return to practicing law upon relinquishing his leadership duties later this year, White says that he’s considering several options, including one in “business” and another in the “public arena.”

White is the older brother of Maureen White, a former finance chair of the Democratic National Committee who is married to Steven Rattner, the Obama administration’s former “Car Czar.” Despite those ties, White doesn’t intend to be another ex–firm leader mulling a run for public office, such as the U.S. Senate bid in West Virginia abandoned last year by former Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe chairman and CEO Ralph Baxter Jr.

“There are better ways to serve the public than running for office,” says White, half-jokingly. “I’m going to take my time and figure out what I want to do.”

As for Woolery, he maintains some ties to his former home. Cravath is representing Cadwalader in a malpractice suit filed in early 2011 by Red Zone LLC, an investment vehicle controlled by Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, over a 2005 proxy fight involving theme park operator Six Flags.

Red Zone was a client of former Cadwalader M&A chair Dennis Block, who left the firm in September 2011 for Greenberg Traurig. The company was recently awarded a $16.7 million jury verdict by a Manhattan court, according to sibling publication New York Law Journal. The case is on appeal.

While Block has moved on, Woolery’s promotion to chairman is the latest in a string of recent leadership changes among Am Law 100 firms.

The Am Law Daily reported last month on Bryan Cave’s appointment of Therese Pritchard to succeed Don Lents later this year. In November, Latham global chair and managing partner Robert Dell announced he would retire at the end of 2014, with a successor slated for election this summer. And Morgan, Lewis & Bockius announced in October that litigation head Jami Wintz McKeon would take the reins from longtime leader Francis Milone next October.