SCOOP: Sidley Austin brings in activism head

This article originally appeared on Activist Insight Online, February 8, 2018.

Sidley Austin has hired Kai Haakon Liekefett, the former-head of Vinson & Elkins’ shareholder activism response team, to lead its activism efforts.

The German-born lawyer, who has also practiced in Hong Kong, Tokyo and London, will join Sidley Austin’s M&A practice in New York, “with a heavy focus on representing public companies in their engagements with activists,” he told Activist Insight Online in an interview Wednesday.

Liekefett helped build the leading defense practice in terms of volume at Vinson & Elkins, representing 29 issuers in 2017 – up from 17 in 2016 – according toActivist Insight Monthly’s intermediary awards, which were announced in December last year. A press release by Sidley Austin Thursday stated that Liekefett had been involved in 20 proxy contests in the last two years alone.

Vinson & Elkins claimed victories last year over Jana Partners at $8 billion oil exploration and pipeline company EQT Energy and over JCP Investment Management in a proxy contest at Fiesta Restaurant Group.
It most recently worked on SandRidge Energy’s attempts to deflect Carl Icahn, where an unconventional poison pill that allowed the company to define where shareholders were acting in concert sparked the activist’s outrage. Following Icahn’s intervention, SandRidge abandoned its acquisition of Bonanza Creek Energy and instead announced early this week that it would merge with Midstates Petroleum.

In an interview, Liekefett said Sidley Austin’s “world class” governance and Securities and Exchange Commission practices, and its relationships with tech firms, financial institutions, and real estate investment trusts attracted him to the firm.

Tactical considerations will ultimately be dictated by client objectives, Liekefett said, but a focus by activists on removing CEOs could result in an increasing number of contentious situations, including proxy contests. “It’s an exciting time for activism,” he commented.

Sidley, which has 10 offices in the United States – including in New York City and Chicago, where it is based – and another 10 worldwide, houses over 2,000 lawyers. It has a voice in the corporate governance world through Partner Holly Gregory, co-leader of its corporate governance and executive compensation practice, who helped draft the National Association of Corporate Directors’ “key agreed principles of corporate governance.”

With a large securities practice, Sidley has on occasion found itself on the side of activists, working on Yucaipa Companies’ campaign at Morgans Hotel Group, for example.

In recent years, the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison renounced working for activists after hiring Scott Barshay as its head of M&A. That has led to greater competition between the firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, and Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz for large-cap defense mandates.

The activist community has meanwhile been served by Olshan Frome Wolosky and Schulte Roth & Zabel, which together work on more than 60% of campaigns, according to Activist Insight Monthly’sintermediary data.

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