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The Legal 500 Hall of Fame highlights individuals who have received constant praise by their clients for continued excellence. The Hall of Fame highlights, to clients, the law firm partners who are at the pinnacle of the profession. Starting with the United States, the criteria for entry is to have been recognised by The Legal 500 as one of the elite leading lawyers for six consecutive years. Fewer than 500 partners across the entire United States have made it into the inaugural list. These partners are highlighted below and throughout the editorial.

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The asset finance and leasing market is almost exclusively transportation finance-related work. One of the main talking points in this segment is the position of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, which has been held in limbo since its congressional authorization lapsed in 2015 and was subsequently reauthorized around five months later. Since its official reauthorization, the bank has taken on a significantly smaller role in the international financing and leasing market, as Chinese lenders and non-traditional investors such as private equity groups are increasingly involved in the aviation finance market.

In the capital market space, 2016 was a sluggish year for the equity offering but law firms remained active, deploying capital markets teams to work alongside corporate departments as part of well-structured dual-track processes. IPOs were in short supply, with the Brexit vote in the second quarter combining with the presidential election in the fourth quarter to unsettle global markets. Deal statistics show that IPO volumes fell by more than a third from 2015, while a quarter of the 102 companies that made their debuts last year were trading below their IPO price in December, according to Renaissance Capital. However, firms are already gearing up for a rebound as the more stable economic outlook, and a long pipeline of stalled IPOs, work to lure companies to market. In particular, the technology, energy and fintech areas are being tipped as the key industries to watch going into 2017.

The main players in this space remain Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, all of whom are equally adept in both issuer- and underwriter-side work.

There is also a small band of firms who are leaders in certain core industry areas, particularly energy, technology and life sciences, but due to their niche expertise are more subject to the natural fluctuations of the market. Most notably, Fenwick & West LLP is a leader for technology matters, while Baker Botts L.L.P. and Vinson & Elkins LLP are go-to firms for energy work.

The debt capital markets (DCM) market successfully navigated some politically turbulent moments to post a record-breaking year, buoyed by a combination of continuing low interest rates and the improving US economy. Indeed, the value of global DCM activity hit a staggering $7tn in 2016, which represented one of the strongest years for debt issuance since records began. Among the headline figures, corporate bond issuance topped $2.3tn, its best-ever performance, while activity from government and agency issuers reached $1.9tn, a jump of 48% on 2015. Firms with significant Latin America practices also had reasons to be cheerful, as corporate debt from emerging markets issuers rose by 34% year-on-year to $267.1bn - notably, Brazilian corporate issuance more than doubled during 2016.

The DCM powerhouses remain Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Sullivan & Cromwell LLP; all of these firms house groups that are top of mind for both underwriter and issuer clients.

The global capital markets offerings space finished 2016 on a positive note, despite the upheaval of political events such as Brexit and the US presidential election. For US-based lawyers at least, the short-term future looks fairly strong. If there has been any knock-on effect from Brexit it was to the benefit of New York and at the expense of London. The promise of looser regulations and lower taxes by the new administration in the US is also considered a boon to US corporate growth, which has led to a drop in US bond yields. The slowly rising interest rates in the US have generally been taken on the chin, since they still remain incredibly low relative to their historical averages. Such low rates has prompted increased activity, particularly in sovereign bond offerings from Latin America, a market that has been relatively moribund in the recent past. For most law firms ranked in the global offerings section, it is the Latin American (and to a lesser degree, Canadian) work that drives much of the activity, if only because the time difference is much easier to manage in New York. Conversely, for those firms with significant international networks, global offerings in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, are more likely to be led by partners based in those regions.

Despite 2016 proving a patchy year for high-yield debt, with high-yield bond issuance falling around 13% to post a fourth consecutive annual drop, the strong finish to the year combined with a projected uptick in M&A volumes left lawyers feeling optimistic. In addition, the looming threat of an interest rate rise is also expected to spur companies to refinance debt before costs soar.

On the issuer side, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Latham & Watkins LLP and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP remain the leaders in the high-yield space, while Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP is universally regarded as the top choice for underwriters’ counsel.

In the structured finance space, law firms have spent recent years structuring transactions to be compliant with US risk retention rules, and the last of those regulations finally came into force in December 2016. Now, just as we’ve reached the end of Dodd-Frank implementation - something that has kept transactional and regulatory lawyers busy for the better part of five years - the market is once again facing uncertainty regarding the future of the heavily politicized Wall Street Reform Act.

In terms of asset classes, recent years have seen slow and steady resurgence in the CMBS and RMBS markets. Esoteric assets are becoming more prominent in the securitization market, with more and more firms handling wireless tower assets, whole-business securitizations, which may include IP assets, and patent, trademark and media royalties.

2016 started slowly but ended with a bang for most commercial lending teams. Any concerns surrounding the uncertainty and unpredictability of the US presidential election were put to rest as deal activity rose while the year progressed. The buoyant market was expected to continue through the early stages of 2017. Most finance lawyers remain optimistic that deal volumes will stay strong, especially if the new Trump administration follows through on its promise to cut regulations. The larger banks generally remain constrained by rules governing leverage ratios, but any restrictions on their side of the market has been made up for by the rise of the non-regulated lending sector. Direct lending has traditionally been the domain of those law firms that concentrated on mid-market transactions, such as Proskauer Rose LLP and Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP. As the industry grows, so does the competition among law firms to gain market share; firms such as Latham & Watkins LLP are increasingly big players in the market. There is also a move among traditional borrower and private equity sponsor firms, among them Kirkland & Ellis LLP and Ropes & Gray LLP, to follow their fund clients across to the lending side of the table.

With most of the Dodd-Frank Act having finally been enacted into law, general counsel at financial institutions have been able to rely on a greater level of certainty and therefore make significant strategic decisions about their businesses. This has continued to manifest itself in a significant amount of transactional work in the sector, primarily as banking general counsel have sought to try and attain a reasonable return on equity for its investors amid the increasing burden of regulation, from Volcker Rule requirements to enhanced capital strictures. Therefore, non-core assets, as well as lines of business which have attracted an unwanted amount of regulatory scrutiny have been disposed of. Of course, this in turn has led to significant investment opportunities for the likes of private equity funds which have been increasingly avaricious in their appetite for banking assets. In this environment, some major wholesale banks have turned their attention to less capital intensive and ‘safer’, less regulated areas of the business, such as wealth management and asset management services.

On the retail front, the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (CFPB) - created in the wake of the financial crisis - continues to flex its muscles and this has led to a raft of pre-emptive compliance work for a myriad of retail financial services entities, including banks, payday lenders, credit unions and mortgage-servicing companies. At the time of writing, the Bureau’s future remains somewhat uncertain in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory and the continued Republican control of Congress, given their general antipathy towards an agency which they view as unaccountable to Congress and unduly aggressive in the regulatory burdens it places on the financial services companies that fall under its watch.

Firms at the top of the ranking will have a deep involvement in these key regulatory concerns, from both an advisory and transactional perspective. Weight is also attached to the diversity of a firm’s client base, and while major investment banking mandates are headline grabbing and important, there are numerous other types of financial services entities that have been affected by the tightening of regulation, from asset managers to insurers. The ranking also pays attention to cross-border capability, particularly in light of the increased tendencies for global regulators to collaborate.

2016 was a healthier year than 2015 for project finance. Hybrid project financings, as opposed to straightforward bank financing, remain a key area of activity, as do financings by hedge funds, insurance companies and foreign banks. In addition, transaction renewable energy lawyers were kept busy by the federal extension of tax credits in December 2015.

It remains to be seen what effect the Trump administration will have on the renewables market: the slashing of corporate tax rates will likely affect tax equity investors - key players in renewable project finance - and Obama’s Clean Power Plan may be kicked into the long grass. But many lawyers are optimistic: the push for renewables will, by and large, continue at ground and corporate level, especially since renewables are increasingly affordable.

Infrastructure lawyers are similarly sanguine, although President Trump’s pledges to invest heavily in infrastructure will likely encounter fierce resistance from a fiscally conservative Congress. Many US-based lawyers have nonetheless been active in Latin American infrastructure projects.

It is unclear what the impact of the new Trump administration will be on not-for-profits (NFPs), but for now the focus of such organizations and foundations continues to be corporate governance best practice, following greater public scrutiny on the ways in which they operate and manage funds.

The election has also increased debate around the idea of charitable issues advocacy, the relationship between public officials and NFPs and the extent to which nonprofits can be involved in political campaigning. (A condition for tax-exempt status is that nonprofits agree with federal government not support or oppose a candidate for public office.)

More generally, there has been a trend in the not-for-profit space to find more creative ways to maximize both financial efficiency and social returns. In a step away from traditional funding and charitable-giving, NFPs are increasingly looking at the ways in which for-profit entities and program- or mission-related investments can help them achieve their goals.

The collapse in oil prices led to a flood of work for bankruptcy and restructuring groups this year, with the energy and production companies bearing most of the economic stress in the first two quarters. Billions of dollars of debt have required restructuring in energy mega-bankruptcies, such as those of renewables company SunEdison, the world’s largest private-sector coal company Peabody Energy, the US’ second largest coal producer Arch Coal, and gas E&P company LINN Energy.

The key debtor’s counsel roles went to company-side favorites Jones Day and Kirkland & Ellis LLP this year, although the majority of top-tier firms have had their share of energy-related debtor engagements. Creditor-side representations have been in abundance and divvied up amongst experienced firms such as Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP, Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP and O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Firms with deep roots in Texas, the hub for energy companies, picked up a number of representations during 2016, particularly as midstream and energy servicing companies began to be affected by the distressed market; these included Vinson & Elkins LLP, Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP and Bracewell LLP.

In a high-profile move, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP hired Paul Leake and Lisa Laukitis from Jones Day.

After the magnitude of the Jefferson County and City of Detroit bankruptcies, the municipal bankruptcy and restructuring market has been fairly quiet for law firms. Most firms are busy representing parties in the Puerto Rico debt crisis, particularly in the wake of the enacting of the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA) in June. The congressional act was enabled following the US Supreme Court’s decision that the Federal Bankruptcy Code preempted Puerto Rico’s Recovery Act, which was passed in 2014 in an effort to restructure its public utility bonds. In general, the municipal bond market was strong last year as a result of low interest rates.

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