04 January 2021

Davis Polk & Wardwell tops global M&A advisory rankings as deal-making rebounds

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Activity surged in H2 2020, Refinitiv report shows, with Latham topping US table and Freshfields leading in Europe and Asia Pacific

Global M&A activity surged in the second half of the year, almost erasing the collapse in transactions in the opening six months when pandemic-related market jitters halted deal-making.

Global deals totalled $3.6tr in 2020, with $2.3tr completed in the second-half alone – 88% higher than the first six months of the year. That was the largest second-half increase on record, helping deal values recover to only 5% below 2019’s full-year total, according to Refinitiv’s Preliminary 2020 M&A Review. Deal volumes also recovered in the second half of the year, with 48,204 deals completed in 2020, only 4% below the number of deals seen in 2019. 

While total deal value declined in 2020, that was mostly driven by a large drop off in the Americas, which fell to $1.5tr from $2.2tr in 2019. Europe and Asia Pacific, meantime, both saw deal values rise. In Europe, transactions clocked in at just shy of $989bn – up from $735bn in 2019. In Asia Pacific, deal values hit $871bn, up from just under $758bn a year earlier.

For deal advisors, what was initially threatening to be a barren year for M&A fee income ultimately proved lucrative for some firms. Davis Polk & Wardwell, which hit the headlines in September when it revealed it was abandoning its lockstep partner pay structure, topped the global M&A legal advisor rankings, up from fourth in 2019.

The New York-headquartered firm worked on 167 deals worth $448bn, accounting for a 12.5% market share. Latham & Watkins climbed from 11th spot in 2019 to take second place, advising on 640 deals worth $440bn, representing a 12.2% share of the market. Sullivan & Cromwell slipped one place to third, advising on 158 deals worth $357bn – a 9.9% market share.

The biggest climbers in the top 15 included Linklaters, which rose 17 places to ninth, and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, which jumped 11 ranks to fourth. Linklaters advised on 212 deals worth roughly $253bn, while Freshfields advised on 212 deals worth just short of $343bn.

Last year’s top ranking advisor – Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz – dropped to fifth having advised on 79 deals worth almost $340bn. In May, the Wall Street leader suffered a rare partner-level loss when Kirkland & Ellis hired M&A specialist Edward Lee.

Latham & Watkins topped the US advisory rankings, up from 11th last year, while investment in European partner talent last year appeared to reap dividends with the Los Angeles giant moving up to fourth in the European ranking, up from sixth place last year. Meanwhile, Freshfields maintained its number one spot in Europe from the previous year while it jumped up the Asia Pacific ranking from 15th in 2019 to top the 2020 table.

Refinitiv Worldwide Announced M&A by Value
2020 2019 Firm Value ($bn) Deals
1 4 Davis Polk & Wardwell 448 167
2 11 Latham & Watkins 440.4 640
3 2 Sullivan & Cromwell 357 158
4 15 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 342.9 212
5 1 Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz 339.5 79
6 6 Skadden 331.7 214
7 5 Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton 301.5 99
8 3 Kirkland & Ellis 294 664
9 26 Linklaters 252.8 212
10 7 Simpson Thacher & Bartlett 252.4 167

Refinitiv Any US Involvement Announced
2020 2019 Firm Value ($bn) Deals
1 11 Latham & Watkins 357.8 473
2 1 Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz 339.6 77
3 3 Sullivan & Cromwell 284,2 127
4 4 Davis  Polk & Wardwell 278.9 122
5 5 Skadden 263.8 169
6 2 Kirkland & Ellis 250.6 624
7 7 Simpson Thacher & Bartlett 234.3 147
8 6 Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton 178.2 52
9 8 Weil Gotshal & Manges 166.5 159
10 14 White & Case 165 145

Refinitiv Any European Involvement
2020 2019 Firm Value ($bn) Deals
1 1 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 253.9 160
2 3 Linklaters 226.6 180
3 13 Davis  Polk & Wardwell 217.5 46
4 6 Latham & Watkins 186.8 245
5 4 Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton 182 56
6 5 Allen & Overy 144 208
7 40 Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz 134.8 20
8 2 Sullivan & Cromwell 124.4 56
9 12 White & Case 121.7 223
10 8 Clifford Chance 108 175

Refinitiv Any Asia Pacific Involvement 
2020 2019 Firm Value ($bn) Deals
1 15 Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer 107.4 54
2 28 Clifford Chance 59.6 60
3 27 Sullivan & Cromwell 57.4 15
4 251 Guantao Law Firm 49.8 11
5 10 Fangda Partners 47.3 132
6 17 Herbert Smith Freehills 46.7 113
7 4 Davis Polk & Wardwell 45.8 26
8 20 Linklaters 37.4 42
9 35 Skadden 35.1 29
10 1 Kim & Chang 30.5 171

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