One of the most senior deal makers at JPMorgan Chase is heading
back to the practice of law.
James C. Woolery, the co-head of North American mergers and acquisitions for the bank, said Sunday that he was leaving after a two-year stint to become the deputy chairman of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft. His departure will leave Chris Ventresca as sole head of the division.
It is the latest turn in the career of Mr. Woolery, who joined JPMorgan in 2011 after 17 years at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of the top merger law firms in the country. In his new role, Mr. Woolery stands as a potential successor to Cadwalader's current chairman, W. Christopher White.
"I'd spent a lot of time with Chris," Mr. Woolery said during an interview, "and became convinced that the firm really had a desire to go in a direction I'd wanted to go."
In his second career as an investment banker, Mr. Woolery worked on some of the biggest deals of the past two years, including AT&T's attempted takeover of T-Mobile USA and Dell's $24.4 billion sale to its founder and the investment firm Silver Lake.
Over all, JPMorgan currently leads the industry in announced deals within the United States, with 20 transactions worth $93.5 billion for the year to date, according to Thomson Reuters.
Mr. Woolery's decision to try his hand at banking marked him as one of a handful of top deal lawyers to do so; Robert Kindler left Cravath as a partner in 2000 to join JPMorgan, and now serves as Morgan Stanley's head of mergers worldwide.
Other lawyers have also switched back from banking, albeit to their old firms, like Harvey R. Miller, who departed Greenhill & Company to return to Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and James Sprayregen, who left Goldman Sachs to go back to Kirkland & Ellis.
Mr. Woolery's latest move was not made out of dissatisfaction with JPMorgan, he said, pointing to his work with Mr. Ventresca as a high point. "Chris was a wonderful partner," Mr. Woolery said. "What we were able to do is highlight the M.&A. focus and talent in the firm."
(People close to JPMorgan said that the departure was on amicable terms. The bank will use Mr. Woolery and Cadwalader as legal advisers on the Dell transaction, for instance.)
Mr. Woolery said that he had still occasionally considered a return to the world of law. "I didn't leave the law and think, 'Well, thank God that's over,"' Mr. Woolery said. "I certainly never ruled it out, but it would have had to be the right opportunity."
That opening came months ago when Mr. White of Cadwalader approached Mr. Woolery about moving to the firm and its downtown New York offices. The pitch: help push the 221-year-old Cadwalader further into the top ranks of advisers on corporate and regulatory matters.
The firm, one of the oldest counselors to Wall Street, has sought to rebuild over the past four years. Cadwalader laid off scores of lawyers in the wake of the financial crisis after one of its mainstay practices, advising on complex debt offerings, dried up.
Rather than trying to compete with giant law firms that offer a "supermarket" model of dozens of practice areas, the idea is to keep Cadwalader focused on helping clients on mergers, debt offerings, antitrust and a handful of other areas.
Mr. Woolery will also remain an active deal maker, intent on improving his new employer's reputation for such expertise. His time as a banker, he said, helped him think about all the issues that corporate boards and other clients must consider.
And Cadwalader will be gaining a big-name mergers specialist, a role largely vacated since the 2011 defection of Dennis Block to Greenberg Traurig.
And as for competing against his former colleagues at Cravath, Mr. Woolery wished them well.
"Cravath will be Cravath," he said, calling it a standard-setter for the industry. "I want nothing but the best for that firm."
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