James Woolery. (Courtesy photo)
James Woolery, a former investment banker, hedge fund executive and M&A partner at Cravath, Swaine & Moore who went on to head Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft for a brief time, has joined King & Spalding in New York.
It’s the fourth new job in six years for Woolery, who left Cravath in January 2011 to join JPMorgan Case & Co. as co-head of North American M&A for the financial services giant. Woolery will serve as head of M&A at King & Spalding and a member of the Am Law 100 firm’s corporate governance practice.
“I’ve had experience in different fields: law, investment banking and hedge funds [and] what I was really interested in is where can I deploy the entirety of that experience,” said the 47-year-old Woolery in an interview Monday. “Some may say, ‘Oh, he’s moved around,’ and that’s true, but from a client perspective or business perspective they actually value the experience and I wanted a place where I had the freedom to use all of that.”
Woolery began his legal career at Cravath, where he was a corporate partner and chair of the firm’s business development group. After his two years at JPMorgan, Woolery joined Cadwalader in early 2013, a high-profile lateral move that saw him become deputy chair of the firm and head of its corporate practice. Woolery was heralded as the “epitome of the Cadwalader lawyer” in a press release touting his arrival. A year later, Cadwalader announced that Wooley would become the firm’s chairman on Jan. 1, 2015. But it was not to be.
After two years at Cadwalader, Woolery left the firm in shortly before being named leader to start a hedge fund called Hudson Executive Capital with Douglas Braunstein, a former CFO at JPMorgan. In a 2015 feature story by The American Lawyer, it was revealed that in hiring Woolery, Cadwalader gave him a three-year guarantee that paid him $8 million a year, making him the firm’s highest-paid partner.
Some legal market observers noted that Cadwalader’s big bet on Woolery had been a massive mistake. The firm, now under new leadership, has seen its finances slip in recent years as it seeks to reorient itself around a few key practice groups. In November, Woolery left Hudson Executive Capital, less than two years after starting the activist hedge fund.
Asked about his myriad moves, Woolery said that he left the business world last year to take stock of his career aspirations.
“It was just a personal decision and [since then] I’ve been taking my kids to school and really reflecting on how to spend the next 20 years,” Woolery said. “I was very impressed over the last several years in how they managed their growth and in how effective they’ve been in growing, not only [in] head count but profitability.”
It was King & Spalding’s strategic growth, along with its culture, that made it the right fit for Woolery, a Kentucky native and distant cousin of former “Love Connection” host Chuck Woolery. (Woolery’s father, Robert Woolery II, is a lawyer in Kentucky.)
This past year, Atlanta-based King & Spalding passed the 1,000-lawyer mark and the firm’s gross revenue increased 3.8 percent, to $1.06 billion. Profits per partner were $2.47 million in 2016, while revenue per lawyer was $1.05 million. As a matter of comparison, the 438-lawyer Cadwalader had profits per partner of $2.11 million last year, along with revenue per lawyer of $1.03 million and gross revenue of $452 million.
While some high-profile lateral recruits have flamed out at King & Spalding, the firm has remained aggressive in attracting new talent. In February, King & Spalding bolstered its energy group in Houston with six new recruits, and last year the firm recruited capital markets and energy M&A partner Jeffery Malonson in the same city following his own lateral market misfire.
“The addition of Jim to the firm is consistent with our strategy to increase our corporate presence in New York,” said a statement by King & Spalding chair Robert Hays Jr. “Jim’s legal, investment banking and hedge fund experience and extensive network of relationships with CEOs, directors and general counsel provide him with insight and tactics few others have.”
During his career, Woolery has worked with some of the world’s largest corporate and financial institutions—he advised on the massive leveraged buyouts of Dell Inc. in 2013 and TXU Corp. in 2007—as well as middle-market companies. At Cadwalader, Woolery co-founded the Shareholder-Director Exchange (SDX), an initiative that seeks to bridge the gap between corporate boards and activist investors. Woolery said that work is synergistic with King & Spalding’s own Lead Director Network.
“I just think it’s my highest and best use,” Woolery said of his return to practicing law. “I’ve always been attracted to it—but with a business side.”
Woolery declined to discuss his compensation at King & Spalding. He said he did not use a legal recruiter in making his move to the firm. A Cadwalader spokesman said the firm wished Woolery well at his new home.
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