The surname “Woolery” in eastern Kentucky has become synonymous with success. There’s Chuck Woolery, the handsome and engaging game show host famous for his tenure on Wheel of Fortune and Love Connection from the 1970s through the ’90s. There’s his cousin Bob Woolery, the well-respected and accomplished attorney-at-law who has represented the legal interests of eastern Kentuckians for decades. But the Woolery getting the most attention — not only in Kentucky but also on a national and international level — is Jim, Bob’s son, who is arguably one of the most successful mergers and acquisitions (M&A) attorneys on Wall Street today.
In February, at the age of 43, Jim Woolery was named deputy chairman of one of the most prominent law firms in the world, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, headquartered in New York City. According to an article published by The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 24), this move puts Woolery in line to succeed the firm’s current chairman, W. Christopher White.
Typically, success stories like Woolery’s include tales of ups and downs, successes and failures. But for him, the road to success was pretty straightforward.
Growing up as the son of an Ashland attorney, he was exposed to a number of influential lawmakers and businesspeople, some of whom held key leadership roles at the community’s flagship manufacturer, Ashland Oil. Among these folks were Jim Stephenson and the late Dick Spears, both then attorneys for Ashland Oil. There was Henry Wilhoit, a federal judge and a prominent lawyer in eastern Kentucky. There was Richard Nash, one of his father’s best friends and a successful lawyer in Louisville. And there was John Hall, president and CEO of Ashland Oil at the time.
As a child, he would attend events at the local country club and listen in on his father’s conversations with friends and colleagues about what business issues they were facing. While most 8-year-olds might find these conversations intolerable, young Jim found them intriguing.
“My father brought clients home to our house a lot, and my mother would cook for them,” he said. “They had a lot of events at our house that were business-oriented, so that had a big impact on me.”
As an undergrad at Wake Forest University, Woolery studied history and political science. One summer he interned at Ashland Oil, helping out in the company’s print shop. It was during this experience that he became familiar with Sam Butler, a renowned corporate attorney at one of the country’s premier law firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, who was then a board member at Ashland Oil.
Woolery went on to obtain a law degree from the University of Kentucky. While his intention was to practice law in Kentucky, he also wanted a “big firm” experience before settling back home. That’s when he reached out to Sam Butler, who eventually hired him as a summer associate at Cravath.
“I was the first summer associate from Kentucky,” Woolery explained. “Most of their students came from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford or Chicago. I don’t think they would have taken me if I wasn’t No. 1 in my class.”
Little did he realize this move would launch a 17-year career with the firm and pave the way for him to become one of the leading M&A dealmakers in the world. But, how did this small-town Kentucky boy make such an impression on the movers and shakers of Wall Street? According to him, it all stems back to his experiences growing up in Ashland.
“The one thing that I would say that gave me a very big advantage over others in New York was that, being from Kentucky, I had a lot of practical, commercial training at the foot of Dick Spears, Jim Stephenson, John Hall, Henry Wilhoit, Richard Nash, and my father,” Woolery said.
“A lot of the lawyers in Kentucky perform a role similar to investment bankers in New York — they facilitate smaller-sized transactions, but they facilitate transactions,” he continued. “In addition to making legal judgments, they make business judgments in the advice they give their clients.”
“And so my earliest perception of lawyering was that it had a real business aspect to it,” he said. “It wasn’t the way you might traditionally view it — I thought of it as a business and not just as a practice.”
It is this mindset that Jim Woolery believes helped him manage some of the largest M&A deals made on Wall Street in recent history. In 2010, he crafted Air Products & Chemical Inc.’s hostile bid for Airgas, creating a buzz in the M&A industry about his unique takeover strategy. He also facilitated the merger of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS) with Xerox, the business and information technology giant with offices and a call center in Lexington.
In 2011 as the country’s biggest law firms continued to struggle with the effects of the recent recession, Woolery was approached by JPMorgan Chase & Co. to become co-head of its North American M&A department. Before he took the job, he called his friend and mentor, former Ashland Oil chairman John Hall, for his opinion on the opportunity. With Hall’s blessing, Woolery made the move from corporate law to investment banking. Some viewed this move as risky, but he made the transition seamlessly, making big contributions over a very short period of time.
“I stopped working at Cravath on a Friday and started at JPMorgan on a Monday,” he said. “And then, in short order, I did AT&T’s deal for T-Mobile, which was the largest deal of that year.”
With the economic recovery in full swing and investors becoming ever more confident, it may seem like a strange time to jump back into law, but Woolery doesn’t think so. To him, the line between corporate law and investment banking was always blurred, so the jump between the two professions was, quite frankly, not that big. And leading Wall Street’s oldest and most prominent law firms was an opportunity too great to pass up.
“Cadwalader has great assets, and one of the things I think I’m good at is bringing those assets together,” he said. “Bringing the people together, having a common plan, having a narrative around the firm, and allowing that to be known in the marketplace. I intend to approach the law firm in a business-like way.”
“What we’re going to be doing is helping businesspeople manage business,” Woolery said of the direction he intends to take Cadwalader. “We’re going to have a commercial approach combined with a regulatory approach. Business, risk and opportunity have to be managed with a view toward the regulatory environment because the regulators could block you at any moment — they could shut you down, they could stop you, they can delay you. They’re very muscular at this point, so the issue of regulatory oversight has become a top issue for CEOs and boards.”
With the tremendous amount of success Woolery has realized over a relatively short period, young and aspiring Kentucky lawyers may want to borrow a page from a chapter in his life. His advice to them: Always use good judgment.
“If you watch baseball all the time, you tend to know if a certain type of runner is on first base and if they’re likely to steal,” he said. “That type of judgment is what people value. There are tons of avenues today outside of your schooling that can make you better and smarter and have more practical commercial judgment, which is the rare thing. Knowing the law is not the most important piece. It’s having the judgment for how it should be applied and what should happen in this particular situation that’s valuable. And I think you’ve got to work to develop those skills outside of the classroom.”
From the Ashland native who has risen to the top of his profession, this should be advice well taken.