Sidley Austin has a new head of its shareholder activism practice.
Kai Haakon Liekefett, founder and head of Vinson & Elkins’ shareholder activism response team, has joined Sidley Austin in New York as an M&A partner and head of its shareholder activism practice.
“Sidley simply provides me with a world-class platform for my practice,” Liekefett said.
Liekefett, who began his legal career in his native Germany by working at Hengeler Mueller and Linklaters, previously spent more than four years as an associate at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. He joined V&E in January 2011 and made partner at the firm four years later.
During his time at V&E, Liekefett focused on shareholder activism and proxy contests. He works with companies on director-elections contests, withhold-the-vote campaigns and other boardroom battles. In the last two years alone, Liekefett has worked on more than 20 proxy contests—more than any other defense lawyer in the United States, according to Sidley.
Unlike many other corporate lawyers who may take on one or two proxy fights a year, Liekefett said his practice is wholly dedicated to defending companies against activism campaigns and proxy contests.
“I’m one of five lawyers in the country at all law firms who have that level of specialization,” Liekefett said.
Because of this specialization, which has become more sought after given the current corporate landscape in the country, Liekefett said that he was looking for a firm that has a deep footprint in public company boardrooms throughout the United States and around the world.
“Sidley is one [of] those few firms,” he said. In addition, Sidley’s strength in its capital markets, corporate governance and securities and derivatives enforcement and regulatory practices, among others, provided the support that Liekefett said he needs to sustain and build his practice.
“If you combine these factors, you can easily see why this would be attractive for someone like me who spends 100 percent of his time defending public companies in proxy fights,” Liekefett said.
At V&E, Liekefett helped the firm get top marks in league table rankings for activism defense work. In late 2015, Liekefett relocated from Houston to New York as part of V&E’s expansion of its shareholder activism response team.
As the new head of Sidley’s shareholder activism practice, Liekefett said his goal is to maintain his pre-eminence in the practice but also to shift its focus globally using Sidley’s foothold in Asia, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan to expand his defense playbook into other jurisdictions.
“This is an exciting time for shareholder activism,” said Liekefett, noting that 2017 had the lowest number of activist settlements and amicable resolutions in more than a decade. “We’re seeing a polarization of the corporate world. Boards are less inclined to settle with activists than two years ago.”
Liekefett, who switches firms three years after fellow Cravath alum and shareholder activism expert David Rosewater left Schulte Roth & Zabel to join Morgan Stanley & Co., is the second high-profile lateral hire Sidley has made in 2018. Last month the firm added Greenberg Traurig’s national financial institutions practice co-chair Andrew Cardonick in Chicago.
As for V&E, the firm announced Thursday that Lawrence Elbaum, who made partner at the firm last month, and senior M&A partner Jeffery Floyd would be taking over as co-chairs of its shareholder activism practice.