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Freshfields Lands Cravath Partner, Wall Street Dealmaker Zoubek

Sept. 29, 2021, 10:00 AM

Cravath, Swaine & Moore partner Damien Zoubek, who has led multibillion dollar deals for major clients at the prestigious firm, is joining Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer.

Hiring one of the best-known New York M&A partners from Cravath marks a major coup for Freshfields, which announced the addition Wednesday. The U.K.-founded firm has been heavily investing in the lucrative U.S. transactions space in recent years.

Cravath worked on more than $216 billion worth of deals in the first half of 2021, which was good for fourth most among all law firms, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. A red-hot M&A market has pushed Big Law revenue and profits to new highs while forcing law firms to compete for lawyers to handle the surge.

Zoubek played a major role. He was part of the Cravath team that led its representation of Canadian National Railway’s $33.6 billion combination with Kansas City Southern. In August, he was a leading partner in the firm’s work on behalf of buy-now-pay-later financing company Afterpay Limited, which was sold to Square Inc. for $29 billion.

“In order to get deals done you need an expertise across a broad array of disciplines that is ever expanding,” Zoubek said in an interview with Bloomberg Law. “The Freshfields team has an unbelievable amount of expertise across the key areas clients need to get deals done,” he added, referencing lawyers who handle M&A, corporate finance, antitrust, regulatory issues, data privacy, intellectual property and life sciences matters.

Zoubek also worked alongside Cravath presiding partner Faiza Saeed when the firm advised the Viacom Inc. board in its 2019 merger with CBS Corp. creating a company with more than $28 billion in revenue.

He was one of seven Cravath partners ranked as a top corporate and M&A lawyer by Chambers & Partners, which scores law firm practice groups based on surveys and interviews with clients.

Zoubek said he was “unbelievably grateful” to have been at Cravath for 22 years. He said he’d worked across the table on deals with Freshfields lawyers including Ethan Klingsberg and Paul Tiger.

“I’m joining the team, and my goal is just to be a key part of the team like everybody else,” Zoubek said. “That’s the way I plan to approach it.”

Compensation Questions

Partners rarely leave Cravath, but a handful of departures in recent years have raised questions in the industry about the sustainability of the firm’s seniority-based lockstep compensation system. The lockstep concept has come under pressure with competitors offering up-and-coming lawyers sometimes double their former salaries.

Cravath partners earned on average just shy of $4.6 million last year, according to the latest AmLaw data, placing the firm among the top 10.

Freshfields itself has used a lockstep system that the firm has reportedly modified to better compensate its top lawyers. The firm’s chair, Georgia Dawson, told Bloomberg Law last year the firm’s U.S. ambitions wouldn’t be hindered by its modified lockstep system.

The firm made a splash stateside in 2019 by hiring Klingsberg, a leading M&A partner from Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton, which also uses a lockstep compensation system. Freshfields has beefed up its U.S. practice, including opening a Silicon Valley office last year with hires from major firms including Davis Polk & Wardell, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and Sidley Austin, among others.

“It is a beautiful thing putting all these pieces together,” Klingsberg said in an interview.

Cravath partners that have left include Scott Barshay, who joined Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in 2016. Kirkland & Ellis hired Sarkis Jebejian, Jonathan Davis and Eric Schiele from 2012 to 2018. Kirkland also hired Cravath litigation partner Sandra Goldstein in 2018.

It’s also rare that Cravath hires partners from competitors. The firm this month added Ronald Creamer Jr., the former head of Sullivan & Cromwell’s tax group, and hired a partner from Debevoise & Plimpton in February. It has seen elevated levels of associate attrition this year.

“Damien is one of the most highly respected M&A lawyers of our generation, whose clients value his exceptional skill and creativity,” Sarah Solum, Freshfields’ U.S. managing partner, said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Roy Strom in Chicago at rstrom@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com

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