Eric Cowan
Eric Cowan ()

Two of Dewey & LeBoeuf’s former leaders might be awaiting their fate in a New York court on criminal charges stemming from the firm’s stunning collapse five years ago this month, but the former head of its telecommunications group is setting up shop at McGuireWoods.

McGuireWoods announced last week its hire of Eric Cowan from Squire Patton Boggs, where he was once managing partner of that firm’s New York office, to serve as head of its global media and entertainment practice. Cowan will initially be based in Baltimore, but not because of Maryland’s tax credits that attract film financiers. Instead, he’s admitted to the state bar and also owns a home near Chesapeake Bay.

“I’ve been described as a suitcase lawyer,” said Cowan, 59, about his plans at McGuireWoods, where he will also work out of the firm’s offices in London and New York. During his career, which has included stops at several big firms, Cowan has built a diverse practice advising acquirers, investors and targets in a variety of transactions in television, movies and other media.

Cowan’s journey through Big Law was captured by The American Lawyer in a 2006 feature story about Dewey & LeBoeuf predecessor LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae, which he joined a year earlier from Thelen Reid & Priest, another Am Law 100 firm that folded, and where Cowan served as vice chair of the business department. After Dewey & LeBoeuf filed for bankruptcy, Cowan was one of many ex-partners hit with clawback suits in the firm’s Chapter 11 case.

Asked about the fall of Thelen and demise of Dewey & LeBoeuf, Cowan was sanguine about experiences that caused him to twice lose his capital. Other former partners, such as ex-Dewey & LeBoeuf litigator Kenneth Freeling, who died in an apparent suicide in March, have fared far worse than him, Cowan said. Asked how the Dewey & LeBoeuf saga would play out on the big and small screens—although he does less studio work than he used to, Cowan has handled numerous TV and film finance transactions—he is somewhat less optimistic.

“It would be about entitled people who make a lot of money and are good at what they do but don’t know how to manage their own lives,” Cowan said of a would-be Dewey & LeBoeuf script, which he’s not giving up his day job to write. “Dewey is all about the villains. I don’t think there are any heroes.”

Despite the public’s seemingly never-ending appetite for legal-themed dramas, Cowan isn’t sure anyone would want to tune in and watch the slow-motion collapse of Dewey & LeBoeuf, or even a fictional characterization. The many staffers who lost their jobs would draw viewer sympathy, but the bigger names who ran the firm into insolvency would just leave people scratching their heads, he said. Apportioning responsibility for the Dewey & LeBoeuf debacle, added Cowan, is easy.

“All partners [at Dewey & LeBoeuf] share some of the blame,” said Cowan, who in 2014 settled an adversary case filed by the firm’s liquidating trustee. “And I can’t tell you how many partners I see today that are working for Citi [Private Bank]. They were the ones usually at the lower end of the pay scale, or maybe they were backed up on their equity line, but they’re still in debt and working to pay back the bank.”

Asked why he left Dewey & LeBoeuf in September 2009 for Winston & Strawn, where he became chair of the firm’s media and telecommunications practice, Cowan said that he did so “because I can read a balance sheet.” Cowan, who left Winston & Strawn in 2012 for Squire Patton Boggs predecessor Squire Sanders, is hoping for happier times at McGuireWoods.

The Richmond, Virginia-based Am Law 100 firm, which saw its gross revenue rise to $682 million in 2016, has been busy on the lateral recruitment front this year. McGuireWoods picked up Steptoe & Johnson partner Steven Adkins in Washington, D.C., for its International Trade Commission litigation practice in April, the same month that McGuireWoods returned to Chapman and Cutler to bring on associate Brian Coughlan as a partner for its debt finance group in San Francisco, having opened an office in the city last year.

McGuireWoods has close ties to many national and regional banks. Last week the firm advised Charlotte, North Carolina-based Park Sterling Corp.—the parent of Park Sterling Bank—on its $690.8 million all-stock merger with South Carolina’s South State Corp. McGuireWoods also moved last year to solidify its relationship with Charlotte-based Bank of America Corp. by bringing on a team of financial services litigators from Reed Smith. The banking connections obviously help when it comes to financing media transactions, Cowan said.

But he’s also impressed by McGuireWoods’ commitment to handling middle-market deals, which will allow Cowan to do 90 percent of his client work on a fixed-fee basis, thereby helping him occasionally undercut competitors at Wall Street firms charging $1,500-per-hour for their services.

“Sometimes the larger firms aren’t interested in the follow-on work, they just want the big deal,” said Cowan, who has long served as outside counsel to leading British commercial broadcaster ITV plc. “I’m more of a relationship lawyer.”

The best part of Cowan’s job, he said, is thinking of the many ways in which the media landscape is changing, and how those changes, such as how readers and viewers consume content, will affect his clients.

“It’s a fascinating industry, don’t you think?” asked Cowan.

Almost as interesting as law firms.

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