Picture this: it’s 1948, New York City, springtime. On April Fools’ Day, Skadden is formed; but make no mistake, this firm is far from being a joke. What started out as a three-man legal practice taking on whatever small work came through the door, has today grown into a 23-office international firm with a 1,700+ attorney roster that dishes out expert-level advice in over 50 practice areas. This is a rags to riches story of the best kind; a story which shows explicitly that from humble beginnings one can rise to incredible levels of greatness. To celebrate the firm’s 70 year anniversary we revisit the origins of their practice; this is the story of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Marshall Skadden, Leslie Arps and John Slate were the founding partners of what has become one of the largest law firms in the world. The three-man partnership came about after all three had suffered unsuccessful partnership bids at well-established firms in New York. At the time, the top law firms in the city were akin to private members clubs – if you weren’t a WASP (white Anglo-Saxon Protestant), it was extremely difficult to get in, much less rise to the top. Thus, Skadden, Arps and Slate’s Jewish and Catholic backgrounds barred them from top-level positions. Not wanting to concede to discrimination, they ventured out on their own and set up shop. From the start, Skadden was founded from a place of difference and presented a challenge to the status quo.
In the firm’s first year, an addition to the team was made in the person of Joseph Flom. A Harvard Law School graduate, Flom joined the firm as an associate, but his influence on the firm’s growth over the years was far above the level of a young upstart. Particularly noteworthy was Flom’s work in the area of mergers and acquisitions (M&A), which the firm would eventually go on to be best known for. He helped establish Skadden as the go-to firm for advice and guidance on hostile takeovers – that is, when an individual or business seeks to purchase a target company without consent. White-shoe firms considered hostile M&A dirty business and so shied away from taking on such work, but such reluctance to engage in proxy fights spelled big business for Flom and the Skadden team who were able to call dibs on a significant share of the work in this area. That the ‘[white-shoe firms] thought hostile takeovers were beneath contempt until relatively late in the game … [and] left [Flom] alone’ meant that during the firm’s early years all through to the 1970s, Skadden gained unparalleled experience in hostile M&A transactions and built up a reputation for being able to successfully deal with large and complex business deals. The firm is now one of, if not the, most sought-after M&A firm in the world.
In 1960 the firm changed its name to include Flom’s and that of William Meagher, and opened several more offices (Boston in 1973, Tokyo in 1987 and London in 1988) signalling its onwards trajectory toward worldwide expansion. The firm also expanded its areas of expertise to include litigation, tax and antitrust (among many others) and has earned an excellent reputation for being relentless in its pursuit of success. The many accolades the firm has earnt over its 70 year history is evidence of its commitment to excellence and determination to obtain favourable results for clients.
Skadden’s London office is the largest outside of the US and celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. Much has been achieved in these few decades; the firm was ranked above all magic circle firms for M&A targeting UK companies in 2017 by Mergermarket and was the first firm to handle more than $1 trillion in global announced M&A in a single year. Skadden also boasts some hard-to-beat work highlights, such as representing Vantiv, Inc. in its $10.4 billion acquisition of Worldpay Group plc. (Britain’s largest payment processor), representing CME Group Inc. in its US$6 bilion acquisition of NEX Group plc. and representing Roman Abramovich in his successful defence of the multimillion-dollar proceedings brought against him in the English High Court by Boris Berezovsky.
Skadden is the sort of firm that individuals with resilience and tenacity want to join. The founding partners’ entrepreneurial spirit and embracement of their background and individuality extends to the firm’s recruitment practices and informs how trainees are selected. In speaking with Pete Coulton, the firm’s UK graduate recruitment partner, it becomes apparent that Skadden is interested in people who are both unique and talented. Of course ‘[certain] things are a given: intellectual rigour and academic excellence, a demonstration of teamwork, drive and ambition’. But, that said, the firm ‘looks deeper into people and what motivates them’, often recruiting those with character, who have their own opinions and don’t follow the crowd. At Skadden, individuality is sought after and praised, with everyone encouraged to carve their own path, much like the firm’s founding partners. In the words of UK training principal Danny Tricot: ‘We all have common attributes, but in terms of personality everyone is hugely different’. Deciding whether candidates have that je ne sais quoi can be difficult to do in a one-hour interview, which is why Skadden recruits trainees from a pool of candidates on their vacation scheme. This approach enables the firm to get a better feel for the candidate and likewise gives the applicant real insight into the firm and significant time to decide whether Skadden is a good fit for them.
So what’s next for the already leading legal powerhouse? Maintaining their top-tier position in the market is the goal. To this end, part of the firm’s strategy involves hiring the best talent to help develop the practice in areas old and new. With evolving teams and fresh perspectives, departments can be more innovative and develop better solutions to the various legal and commercial challenges brought to them by businesses, government organisations and individuals. With such a great history and track record, one can only assume such goals are comfortably within reach by the teams at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
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