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

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

20202019FirmValue ($bn)Deals
14Davis Polk & Wardwell448167
211Latham & Watkins440.4640
32Sullivan & Cromwell357158
415Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer342.9212
51Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz339.579
75Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton301.599
83Kirkland & Ellis294664
107Simpson Thacher & Bartlett252.4167
20202019FirmValue ($bn)Deals
111Latham & Watkins357.8473
21Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz339.677
33Sullivan & Cromwell284,2127
44Davis  Polk & Wardwell278.9122
62Kirkland & Ellis250.6624
77Simpson Thacher & Bartlett234.3147
86Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton178.252
98Weil Gotshal & Manges166.5159
1014White & Case165145
20202019FirmValue ($bn)Deals
11Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer253.9160
313Davis  Polk & Wardwell217.546
46Latham & Watkins186.8245
54Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton18256
65Allen & Overy144208
740Wachtell Lipton Rosen & Katz134.820
82Sullivan & Cromwell124.456
912White & Case121.7223
108Clifford Chance108175
20202019FirmValue ($bn)Deals
115Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer107.454
228Clifford Chance59.660
327Sullivan & Cromwell57.415
4251Guantao Law Firm49.811
510Fangda Partners47.3132
617Herbert Smith Freehills46.7113
74Davis Polk & Wardwell45.826
101Kim & Chang30.5171


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