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Sidley Austin Led Law Firms Battling Activist Investors in 2020

Jan. 6, 2021, 5:50 PM

Sidley Austin LLP had more work defending companies against activist investors than any other law firm last year, according to new Bloomberg data.

Companies engaged the law firm 33 times in fights against activist campaigns in 2020, the data show. Sidley’s clients included Crown Castle International Corp., Exelon Corp., and HP Inc., which the law firm helped to rebuff a $35 billion hostile takeover by Xerox Holdings Corp. last year, according to Bloomberg.

Activists initiated 587 new campaigns with stakes worth $86 billion in 2020 overall, according to the Bloomberg data. The number of new campaigns represented a 2.3% drop from 601 in 2019. But 2020’s stakes were 7% higher than the $80 billion total for 2019.

Work related to shareholder activism was down early in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic but picked up later in the year, said Sidley partner Derek Zaba, a co-chairman of the firm’s shareholder activism practice.

“We have enough recognized expertise that we get a lot of companies calling us out of the blue,” Zaba said.

Source: Bloomberg

Increasing Pressure

Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz was close to edging out Sidley with the 31 engagements it landed defending companies in 2020, putting it in the No. 2 spot, according to Bloomberg data.

But Wachtell topped law firms representing companies when ranked by the value of activist stakes, which was $10.4 billion in 2020, the data show. The value of activist stakes for Sidley was $4.1 billion that year.

Wachtell also advised HP in its fight with Xerox and assisted Public Storage in a board representation campaign brought by activist fund Elliott Management Corp. in 2020, according to Bloomberg. Elliott is seeking to add six directors to Public Storage’s board, Bloomberg reported in December.

“The pace of change and pressure on public companies has never been greater, and clients rely on us,” said Sabastian Niles, a Wachtell partner who focuses on shareholder activism.

Vinson & Elkins LLP, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and Latham & Watkins LLP followed Wachtell in the law firm rankings, rounding out the top five law firms with the most engagements helping companies against activist shareholders, according to Bloomberg data. Vinson, which led the rankings in 2019, had 27 engagements in 2020. Kirkland and Latham both had 19 last year.

Activist Side

Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP, which advises Elliott and other activist investors, had 119 engagements in 2020, leading law firms that represent shareholders against companies, according to Bloomberg data. The law firm’s two closest competitors assisting activist investors were Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP with 42 engagements, and White & Case LLP with 16.

The value of activist stakes for Olshan that year was $14.8 billion, which no other law firm could beat.

But work was also down for the Olshan last year. The law firm had 20 fewer engagements in 2020 after picking up 139 matters in 2019, Bloomberg data show.

“There’s a little dip in 2020, but we fully expect 2021 to be as busy as ever,” said Olshan partner Andrew Freedman, a co-chairman of the firm’s shareholder activism group.

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Ramonas in Washington at aramonas@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Michael Ferullo at mferullo@bloomberglaw.com, Melissa B. Robinson at mrobinson@bloomberglaw.com

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