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Rare blow for Cravath as Freshfields hires Zoubek to co-head Wall Street M&A team

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer has hired Cravath M&A partner Damien Zoubek to co-head its New York corporate practice alongside Ethan Klinsberg, a coup that is sure to make waves on both sides of the Atlantic.

The move is yet another indicator to the market that the Magic Circle firm has finally outgrown its reputation for patchy investment in its all-important US corporate offering, lending further kudos to global managing partner Alan Mason’s substantive efforts to bolster the US practice.

Zoubek (pictured) joined Cravath in 1999 and made partner in 2007, making a name for himself in the firm’s M&A mainstay, including shareholder activism defence and corporate governance.

His sector focus includes healthcare, life sciences, technology, fintech, consumer/retail, infrastructure and industrial, with recent high-profile transactions including Canadian National’s $33.6bn interloper bid to acquire Kansas City Southern, and Afterpay’s $29bn sale to Square.

Zoubek also this year represented GW Pharmaceuticals in its $7.2bn sale to Jazz Pharmaceuticals; AmerisourceBergen in its $6.5bn acquisition of Walgreen’s Alliance Healthcare businesses;  New Senior in its $2.3bn sale to Ventas; the $1.8bn acquisition of Luminex by DiaSorin; and GreenSky in its $2.2bn sale to Goldman Sachs.

Freshfields has kept critics of its US approach quiet in recent times, last year launching a seven-partner office in Silicon Valley and augmenting its technology, life sciences and antitrust practices with hires in its New York Washington DC and Silicon Valley outposts.

A major breakthrough came in 2019 when the City institution secured the hire of an M&A team in Wall Street from Cleary Gottlieb, led by prominent M&A veteran Klingsberg and including partners Meredith Kotler, Pamela Marcogliese and Paul Tiger, a move that is still considered a trophy acquisition.

That was the most significant US transactional move since Freshfields made its first substantive foray into New York corporate in 2014 when it secured the hire of former Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson senior partner and head of global capital markets Valerie Ford Jacob along with two other corporate partners – Michael Levitt and Paul Tropp. The arrival of Peter Lyons, Shearman & Sterling’s former global public M&A head, the same week and the willingness to pay select recruits above the top of its lockstep were signals that the firm meant business.

Impactful departures from Cravath are so few and far between that people still talk about corporate star Eric Schiele’s 2018 transfer to Kirkland’s New York arm and the 2017 defection of Scott Barshay to Paul Weiss, at the time one of the most expensive moves ever in the legal profession.

Choice transactions for Freshfields in 2021 include advising the buyer consortium and Cargill Incorporated on the $4.5bn take-private of Sanderson Farms and the combination of Sanderson Farms with Wayne Farms; SITEL in the multi-billion-dollar take-private of Sykes Enterprises; Western Union on the sale of Western Union Business Solutions to a private equity consortium; and the IPOs of Zymergen and Viant Technology.

Klingsberg said of the hire: ‘Damien is a thought-leader among the M&A bar, an inspiring presence in the boardroom and at the negotiating table, and a client favourite.  He fits in perfectly with our powerhouse team of US corporate, regulatory, and litigation lawyers in New York, Washington DC and Silicon Valley working for clients across the nation on fast-paced, strategic projects.’

Sarah Solum, the firm’s US managing partner, added: ‘Damien is one of the most highly respected M&A lawyers of our generation, whose clients value his exceptional skill and creativity. Freshfields has consistently built its partner ranks with the highest quality lawyers, and Damien is the embodiment of this approach.’

Concluded senior partner Georgia Dawson: ‘The firm is providing clients with unparalleled corporate, regulatory and litigation expertise and depth on an integrated basis, both domestically in the US and worldwide. The inclusion of a lawyer of Damien’s calibre on the team is consistent with this uncompromising approach to client service that we have adopted and with what our clients need in these challenging times.’