‘A very regular guy’

Cravath Swaine & Moore’s head of corporate John White may be overshadowed at home by his federal prosecutor wife Mary Jo, but that has not stopped him building up one of the country’s most formidable and profitable capital markets practice. Claire Smith finds out more about this unusually shy New York lawyer

John White is one half of the Tina Brown and Harold Evans of the New York legal scene. Inconspicuous by name and unobtrusive by nature, the head of corporate at top Manhattan firm Cravath Swaine & Moore is used to being beaten to the limelight by his wife – the city’s top federal prosecutor.

Mary Jo White has indicted high-ranking members of the Mafia, convicted international terrorists and, just last month, was part of the team that cracked the biggest securities fraud in US history.

She has been noted as one of the 10 most powerful people in the US legal system, alongside attorney-general Janet Reno. But the formidable practice of her tall, slim husband should not be overlooked merely because he is too shy to boast about it.

For John White is a world leader in international capital markets work – both debt and equity. Not only that, he is also at the helm of a corporate practice which makes up half of the firm’s work and plays a major part in bringing in profits per partner surpassing the $2m (£1.3m) mark.

His closest clients are investment banks Salomon Smith Barney, Goldman Sachs and Chase Manhattan, and big companies such as WorldCom, Lucent Technologies, Xerox and DuPont, for whom he is designated underwriter’s counsel on the big deals.

It seems that they like his shy, unassuming style. In fact, according to Brad Gans, the managing director of Salomon Smith Barney, the only thing that White shows off about is his marathon running.

“John’s not a pushy, arrogant New York lawyer as many people of his stature tend to be. He is someone who you will talk to and you will not see a lot of arrogance and ego. He’s a very regular guy who just tries to do his job, get the right answer and not run over people with his résumé,” says Gans.

And it is a résumé many capital markets lawyers would give their eyeteeth for. His deals tend to push the boundaries, in terms of both volume and value – such as when he advised Morgan Stanley Dean Witter on the $4.4bn (£2.9bn) Conoco IPO, the largest in US history.

He also represented Salomon Smith Barney on WorldCom’s $6.1bn (£4bn) global bond offering, which was the largest ever at the time, and again on the $2bn (£1.3bn) high-yield offering for Level 3 Communications – another groundbreaker.

According to Gans, part of White’s success comes down to his training as an accountant. “He keeps a little newspaper clipping laminated on his wall – he was national champion in accounting [at college],” he reveals.

White’s accountancy training at the University of Virginia has added even greater depth to his capital markets work and has helped him build up one of the most impressive underwriter practices, with an unparalleled representation of managers for high-yield debt.

But it is precisely because White does not blow his own trumpet that Gans believes he is the best man for the job. “There are a lot of people who, if you asked them to toot their own horn would toot it quite loudly. John’s not like that, and that’s actually his strength as a New York lawyer,” he says.

“A lot of the time we are using lawyers to go off into the hinterland. John is very effective in getting along with the mid-western issuers, the bank in the south-west, the airplane company in the north-west, the auto parts manufacturer in St Louis and so on. He gets along with people, which is what, as an underwriter, we want. Our client is the issuer and it’s not a hostile relationship – having our lawyers fight is never a good thing, having them get along is what we are after.”

As head of one of the most profitable corporate practices in the world, the grey-haired 53-year-old has to make sure his colleagues also get along.

White worked his way up through the ranks of the firm, joining in 1975 and making partner in 1980. His first taste of leadership came when he took up the role of recruitment partner for the corporate department in the early 1980s. From there he moved on to become managing partner of corporate and then took the reins two years ago.

Phil Fletcher, managing partner of the London office of Milbank Tweed Hadley & McCloy, recalls: “John White was the recruitment partner at Cravath Swaine when I came out of law school. He almost recruited me to Cravath Swaine, but in the end I decided to come here. He was the main reason I considered the firm – he is the most enthusiastic, energetic lawyer I have ever met.”

White talks about the firm with more gushing pride than he does about his own practice. Unusual, considering its fierce commitment to independence, lockstep compensation and refusal to make lateral hires – Cravath Swaine could not wish for a better salesman.

White says: “We are one of the very few US firms that still has lockstep. We have clients of ours who think that lockstep compensation is communism and they think it’s crazy. What it actually means is that we can’t make someone a partner with the idea that if they don’t work out we just pay them less than everyone else.

“It means that bringing people up and training them internally is very important. We don’t want to admit someone unproductive who will give us less flexibility. I would expect that most of our partners know every other partner. We couldn’t grow and keep these sort of qualities.”

The 400-lawyer firm maintains only two offices outside New York, one in London and one in Hong Kong. Neither practises local law, relying on a close referral network which includes Slaughter and May and Herbert Smith in London, Hengeler Mueller Weitzel Wirtz in Germany, Blake Cassels & Graydon in Canada and Bredin Prat &Associés in France, to service a practice where a third of the biggest clients are non-US. (The fact that Slaughters and Hengeler Mueller have an even closer relationship with rival Davis Polk & Wardwell does not seem to faze White.)

Slaughters has been much maligned for pursuing the “best friends” strategy, but White is relaxed and quietly confident that it is the right way to go.

He says:”We have the benefit that we will not be over-expanded and over-committed. If we have made the wrong choice we will continue to have a collection of truly superb lawyers, and good lawyers will always presumably find work.

“Let’s say that there is no one else but us left in the US. If a firm in Europe needs one in the US we become a very attractive place to refer work because we are non-threatening, we are not going to steal your client.”

White even quips about the possibility of one day merging with Slaughters, jesting that the firm could become Cravath Slaughter and May and his firm would not even have to change its initials.

He says: “It is quite a significant and high- profile practice and business has been good for a long time. We are blessed by the premier brand in the legal profession and that is extraordinarily valuable in recruiting. If you are a law student and you want to go to what is perceived as the best law firm, we are seen in more people’s eyes than other firms as the best.”

White is certainly held in high regard by his contemporaries in London. Slaughters head of corporate Nigel Boardman says of him: “He heads one side of its business and does so with the respect of all of them, which isn’t always easy. A lot of his people are strong self-starters, they don’t really need leadership from the head, they just need keeping cohesive and he seems to do that excellently.”

White himself is one of those people who manages to maintain a sense of order wherever he goes. His enormous office is kept immaculately tidy, a giant wooden desk harbouring not only the prerequisite computer screen but also a television, tracking all the latest stocks and shares activity.

Intensely protective of his family life, which so often finds itself under the spotlight, White loves nothing more than supporting the Knicks basketball team or the New York Yankees at baseball in the company of his young son. If he is not doing that, he is probably running a marathon or playing tennis.

London partner David Brownwood – White’s good-humoured rival in marathon running (“he jibes me about it all the time”) – says that although White likes to place the credit on the firm’s shoulders, he deserves to be recognised for his amazing contribution.

He says: “John has become one of the leaders of the securities bar in the US. He is a brilliant lawyer – he has a terrifically balanced judgement and he knows how to handle people.

“John does not try to be a one man show, he knows how to operate his team and have it work effectively.

“He is not boastful, he comes across as just nice to sit down and have a chat with, and he doesn’t ever come across as overbearing. His clients are extremely loyal to him – and the firm is very proud of John.”