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Although North America generally accounts for more than 40% of global M&A volume and the year ended with several blockbuster acquisitions (including CVS’s $67.8bn acquisition of Aetna and Disney’s $52.4bn acquisition of 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets), the US market mostly distanced itself from large M&A deals in 2017. The total number of transactions was almost equal to 2016, but the approximately $1.3tn-worth of deals announced in 2017 marks a 14.9% decrease from the previous year (figures from Mergermarket).

This relative conservatism was partly due to high company valuations, driven in part by rocketing stock market performance, and partly due to uncertainty over the direction of the new administration, with many businesses waiting to see what the regulatory and enforcement regime would look like under President Trump and whether the administration would overhaul the tax code as promised. Subsequently, in December 2017, the Senate approved a $1.5tn tax bill including permanent tax breaks for corporations and temporary cuts for individuals. Increasing confidence in the market, in part brought about by the tax changes, showed itself in the M&A market, with deal activity accelerating hugely in the final quarter.

Hot industries for M&A in 2017 included healthcare - as illustrated by CVS’s acquisition of Aetna - and technology, with tech transactions hitting record levels according to Mergermarket; consumer goods deals also looked to be on the rise. One notable decline was in tax inversion transactions, following new rules imposed by the US Treasury. Notable lateral moves included Eric Schiele joining Kirkland & Ellis LLP from Cravath, Swaine & Moore LLP.

Looking ahead, many regard the M&A outlook in 2018 as positive; global corporates regard deal activity as a significant opportunity for growth, with acquisitions of technology and digital assets remaining a key driver of M&A, along with robust private equity activity and the continued knock-on effect of the tax reform. In the middle market, both technology and healthcare are expected to remain busy areas. China outbound deal flows are also expected to be an important part of US M&A, as is outbound M&A activity from the US to Mexico and Canada; inbound deals by non-Chinese companies can also be expected, particularly in financial services and consumer products.

A number of mergers also took place in the US legal market. Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP merged with Chadbourne & Parke LLP; the combination brought experienced advisers to the team in New York, including William Greason, Kessar Nashat and Charles Hord III. The merger also brought about notable exits from the Chadbourne & Parke LLP side; its former Latin America group joint chairs Allen Miller, who is experienced in power, infrastructure and renewable energy sector deals, and corporate and investment funds expert Talbert Navia, along with private equity attorney Kevin Smith and Morton Grosz, who acts for multinational corporate clients and investment funds, joined international outfit Winston & Strawn LLP, which also recruited public and private company M&A specialist Thomas Hughes in Dallas from Norton Rose Fulbright US LLP.

Elsewhere, DLA Piper LLP (US) combined with Liner LLP, a Los Angeles-based boutique law firm that focuses on litigation, restructuring and business transactions practices, and sectors such as media and entertainment, real estate, new media and private equity. Other significant middle-market activity included Ballard Spahr LLP’s 2018 merger with Minneapolis-based firm Lindquist & Vennum, which is expected to enhance the firm’s capabilities in M&A transactions and extend its national footprint into the Midwest, adding offices in Minneapolis and Sioux Falls and expanding its presence in Denver. The combined firm has over 650 lawyers - and more than 110 M&A lawyers - in 15 offices nationwide. Another notable development in 2017 was Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP opening a Santa Monica office following demand from California-headquartered technology companies and start-ups.

The private equity sector in 2017 was once again dominated by middle-market transactions, with high company valuations providing a barrier to large-cap deals. Impressive fundraisings and an enthusiasm for private equity among institutional investors, have meant that the industry has plenty of pent-up capital to invest. A period of relative calm following Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017 has buoyed deal activity, especially with the incoming tax reforms. As private equity houses seek greater returns, they continued to target high-growth areas such as technology and previously less-tapped markets such as energy. While New York continues to be the hub for private equity in the US, there are many other centers across the country, including in San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Houston. Private equity leader Kirkland & Ellis LLP launched a Boston office in 2017 and hired private equity specialists Matthew Cohn and Christian Atwood from Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP and Choate, Hall & Stewart respectively.

It was a banner year for the venture capital and emerging companies sector in 2017. Venture capital financings totaled $148bn, according to PitchBook, driven in part by higher company valuations and the greater availability of funding. PitchBook indicates that over 40 VC-backed companies have achieved billion-dollar valuations; such companies are widely known as unicorns. The increasingly global nature of the venture capital community has also led to a series of marquee financings, such as SoftBank’s $4.25bn investment into WeWork. The importance of the emerging company sector to the global economy and its impact on transactional activity means it remains an especially attractive segment for the legal profession. Major international firms such as Latham & Watkins LLP enthusiastically operate in this space with the intention of building a client base that can be serviced by multiple departments and numerous offices over the long term.

Lawyers operating in the field of corporate governance continued to report on the increasing prominence of shareholder activism work. In response to this, the corporate governance section now explicitly incorporates this type of work and, as a result, has expanded, with the likes of Schulte Roth & Zabel LLP, Olshan Frome Wolosky LLP and Goodwin entering for the first time. In addition to shareholder activism work - which includes the representation of existing boards as well as activist shareholders - the section covers work relating to leadership changes, public company securities disclosures, and good governance issues. It does not include white-collar criminal matters, which are covered separately within the dispute resolution chapter of this guide.

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