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Zach Fardon

Zachary Fardon is headed home after leaving his position as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois in March. He’s just not returning to the private practice perch that many expected.

Fardon will be launching a Chicago office for King & Spalding, the firm announced Wednesday, marking a surprising end to a highly competitive recruiting process that many presumed would see the former Latham & Watkins partner return to the firm he left in 2013 to lead the U.S. Department of Justice’s Windy City outpost.

Instead, Fardon’s roots with King & Spalding came calling. He started his career as an associate in the firm’s Washington, D.C., office from 1993 to 1997, working under former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, a senior partner at King & Spalding who died in 2009.

Fardon will now take up the challenge that he said motivated him: Building a Chicago office for his new firm from scratch. Lacking even a permanent space until September, Fardon said he will be making hires “soon.” He will be looking for lawyers that meet two basic criteria: Excellence in the practice of law and those who also possess “caring, kindness and civility,” important traits for those in public service.

“Those couplings are maybe too rare in the Big Law business,” Fardon said Wednesday. “Lawyers are lawyers, but they’re also humans and citizens. And having a focus not only on the excellence and financial success but also community service is what distinguishes King & Spalding.”

King & Spalding had gross revenue of $1.06 billion in 2016, with profits per partner of $2.47 million. Latham, the largest firm by revenue in the Am Law 100 by gross revenue, took in a whopping $2.82 billion last year, as profits per partner hit $3.06 million.

Fardon said it was a difficult decision not to return to Latham, where he said he has many “dear friends,” adding that “I have great respect and affection for that place and I always will.” (News of Fardon’s decision to join King & Spalding was first reported last month by Crain’s Chicago Business.)

Sean Berkowitz, a partner in Latham’s Chicago office and global co-chair of the firm’s complex commercial litigation practice, said the firm was disappointed to not have Fardon re-join its ranks but expressed well-wishes for a friend.

“He’s a phenomenal lawyer and even better person who has distinguished himself in every endeavor he’s ever undertaken, including most recently as the U.S. Attorney,” Berkowitz said. “We wish him nothing but success.”

Latham, which made a key litigation hire in June by bringing on Leslie Caldwell as a partner in San Francisco, was the only firm that Fardon confirmed he met with during a six-week search. He did not use the services of a legal recruiter. But sources familiar with his discussions say he was sought after by several large firms in Chicago, including Jones Day, McDermott Will & Emery and Sidley Austin.

At King & Spalding, Fardon will join a special matters and government investigations practice that numbers more than 100 lawyers and recently saw its leader, Christopher Wray, confirmed earlier this month as director of the FBI. Wray’s position as head of that high-profile practice was filled by Washington, D.C., office managing partner J. Sedgwick “Wick” Sollers III, a lawyer for the family of late Penn State University football coach Joe Paterno.

Wray’s departure also proved how lucrative a top position can be at King & Spalding. Wray reportedly earned $9.2 million from his partnership share in the firm during 2016 and 2017, according to financial disclosure documents made available as part of his FBI confirmation process.

Kay Hoppe, a veteran legal recruiter in Chicago, said a long list of Chicagoland partners had already expressed interest in joining Fardon’s new office. The list of partners who had reached out to her had a cumulative book of business of about $80 million, Hoppe said.

“I have never seen anything like this,” she added. “And the interest is there because of a combination of King & Spalding’s name and reputation and him. It’s stunning.”

King & Spalding leaders said the hiring of Fardon would help the firm serve its clients on government investigations, related commercial litigation and across the financial services and life sciences sectors, where the firm already has Chicago-based clients.

Robert Hays Jr., re-elected in 2014 to a fourth term as King & Spalding’s chairman, said the timing of Fardon’s hire so soon after Wray’s departure was coincidental but that it also helped the firm, which was looking for talented, white-collar and investigations lawyers in the wake of Wray’s exit.

“We still would have been equally interested in Zach,” Hays said. “The decision [was] coincidental. However, the time works well in that regard. Once Chris independently was leaving, we do want to make sure that we continue to bring in talent at the highest level, and Zach would represent that.”

As U.S. Attorney in Chicago, Fardon was selected to serve on the U.S. Attorney General’s Advisory Committee in 2014, a position where he advised on policy, management and operations of prosecutors’ offices around the country. Fardon, who replaced current Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Patrick Fitzgerald as Chicago’s top federal prosecutor, also created a special section to prosecute securities and commodities fraud that led to a first-of-its-kind criminal conviction for spoofing, a misdirection ploy used to bait futures traders.

But Fardon’s most arduous task was dealing with Chicago’s rampant street violence, which has steadily risen and last year culminated in 762 murders, the most in nearly two decades. The city is on pace for a similar number of homicides this year.

While Fardon’s office increased prosecutions of illegal firearms to their highest levels in more than a decade, the city still faced a crisis that deepened with the 2015 release of a video in which a Chicago police officer shot Laquan McDonald 16 times, killing the teenager who was without a gun. The episode eventually led to criminal charges for the police officer, Jason Van Dyke, and Winston & Strawn’s retention by the City of Chicago.

On the day Fardon was asked to resign by President Donald Trump along with more than 40 U.S. attorneys across the country, he released a five-page letter expressing his frustration over gun violence and the impact his efforts had. Fardon also laid out five steps to address the problem moving forward.

“At no moment during those three and a half years did the gun violence abate,” Fardon wrote in a letter that drew national headlines. “Every month, every year, innocents died, kids died.”

Fardon said Wednesday he spent a month to six weeks after his departure from the federal government honoring commitments to speak both publicly and privately about issues related to gun violence. He said he remains committed to stemming Chicago’s increase in crime, something in which he said his new firm is both aware and supportive.

“I will continue to do whatever I can for as long as I can to help address the gun violence epidemic on the South and West sides of Chicago,” Fardon said.

Fardon’s decision to join King & Spalding is not the first time he has made a career move influenced by a connection he previously made at the firm. In 2002, while still an associate, Fardon was lured to Nashville to become the top assistant to then-U.S. Attorney James Vines, whom Fardon had met years earlier while working together at King & Spalding. Vines is now a partner at King & Spalding in Atlanta.

“This firm is where I really learned not only how to be a lawyer, but how to be a lawyer with integrity,” Fardon said. “How to keep a long view and reputation based on honesty and truth-telling over time.”

Fardon is King & Spalding’s latest notable lateral recruit this year. In May, the firm made waves in New York’s M&A market by bringing on former Cravath, Swaine & Moore and Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft partner James Woolery. King & Spalding recruited Ropes & Gray finance partners Mark Wesseldine and Fergus Wheeler in London the following month.

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