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Lawyers handling commercial deals and contracts have reported a busy year, as the technology and life sciences sectors have continued to thrive. Data privacy is an increasingly major area of concern for attorneys in this area. Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP entered this table for the first time in recognition of its high-profile IT work.

Corporate governance lawyers report that helping companies deal with shareholder activism continues to make up a large portion of their workload. In particular, attorneys have identified a recent trend for shareholders to demand proxy access. More broadly, there is an onus on lawyers to be proactive rather than reactive: as clients increasingly acknowledge the importance of good governance, lawyers find themselves drafting company bylaws to prevent problems in the future. Delaware firm Richards, Layton & Finger, P.A., which receives considerable acclaim from lawyers in other states, was added to the ranking this year.

Despite an upward trend in technology M&A, for the first three quarters of 2016, the volume of transactions in the US, including both the upper and middle market, did not match that of the previous year. However, in response to the strategic needs of corporations and private equity investors, together with companies reporting increased liquidity levels, October 2016 was celebrated as domestic M&A’s busiest month ever.

Looking beyond the recent inauguration of President Donald Trump, many forecasters predict strong M&A activity in energy and technology, while healthcare is expected to struggle in 2017 because of the uncertainty surrounding the Affordable Care Act.

Notable growth among US law firms included Fenwick & West LLP launching a New York office in mid-2016 to service its growing East Coast client base.

Significant mergers between US law practices also occurred. Washington DC-founded firm Arnold & Porter LLP combined with the New York-founded Kaye Scholer LLP, creating Arnold & Porter; the new enterprise has approximately 1,000 lawyers working from nine domestic and four international offices.

Cross-border mergers have also taken place. Atlanta-headquartered Sutherland Asbill & Brennan LLP, founded over 90 years ago, combined with British multinational law firm, Eversheds LLP; the new firm, Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP, has 2,300 lawyers spread across 61 offices in 29 countries.

Private equity deals slowed across the board in 2016 and there was a relative absence of high-value transactions, leading many firms to heighten their focus on mid-cap funds and middle-market deals. Uncertainty over the political and economic landscape, created by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the US presidential election, damaged confidence during the year. Private equity sponsors faced more limited access to debt, with a declining high-yield market and banks lacking enthusiasm to finance leveraged buyouts. Certain sectors, such as technology remained buoyant, with deals such as Dell and Silver Lake’s $67bn acquisition of EMC and Madison Dearborn Partners’ $2.77bn sale of Sage Products to Stryker. Beyond technology, energy continues to be a sector of considerable interest to private equity sponsors and their advisers. For many years, private equity houses struggled to align themselves with the risk profile of the energy industry, but as a major contributor to US’ GDP and with the industry still comparatively fragmented, it has become especially attractive to sponsors. Many large diversified private equity houses have developed energy-focused funds and looked south to Texas. This partly explains why firms such as Kirkland & Ellis LLP, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP have worked hard to build their presences in Houston, and why energy-focused firms such as Vinson & Elkins LLP have made considerable progress in the private equity sector.

The upper end of the venture capital space was relatively flat in 2016, with the quiet IPO market leading to a retrenchment of late-stage funding. However, expectations are that this trend will reverse under the new administration. The mid-market transaction level was consistent, with the digital health sector particularly buoyant - a continuation of the overall trend in recent years of life sciences companies becoming increasingly active. Cooley LLP, Fenwick & West LLP, Gunderson Dettmer LLP and Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati remain the major players in the market, although DLA Piper LLP (US), Goodwin and Morgan, Lewis & Bockius LLP continue to make big strides.

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