The word "elite" comes from an Old French verb meaning "to choose." In its modern connotation, the word has also come to stand for high achievement. Both meanings apply to the special report that follows - the culmination of an intensive effort by the staff of The American Lawyer to choose 45 of the highest-performing members of the private bar under the age of 45.
We had help. Many months ago, we contacted all the firms in The Am Law 200 to seek their nominations. We also spun our own Rolodexes, scanned Web sites and news clippings, and reached out to luminaries within particular practice areas to solicit their thoughts.
As for criteria, there were a very few. We looked for prodigies who had already notched a major trial win or complex deal, for those who had established remarkable records of professional development, for those who could point to an independent book of business, for those who might have overcome adversity. We also looked far and wide. It would be possible to construct a list of 45 young bankruptcy specialists whose accomplishments were noteworthy (particularly in this market), but we wanted to draw from many walks of law.
The result, we think, will stand up over time. That was certainly true of the alumni from our last such effort; their impressive updates appear throughout the following pages. So, for all you elitists out there, happy talent scouting.
James Sprayregen, 43
Kirkland & Ellis
Chicago & New York
Even in the land of the notoriously hard-working, James Sprayregen stands out. Which is the more impressive statistic: that he flies 250,000 miles a year or that he still bills 3,500 hours? Or that he needs only four or five hours or sleep a night? It's hard to choose, but it helps explain how he manages on any day to juggle two or three of the nation's largest bankruptcies. "No one in our law firm works or has ever worked harder," says Kevin Evanich, a member of Kirkland's executive committee.
About four years ago, Evanich, as Sprayregen's reviewing partner, took stock of the bankruptcy phenom. Evanich wondered whether Sprayregen could sustain his remarkable productivity, or even whether he should. "I urged him to slow down," Evanich says. "We worry about his health. I told him, 'We don't want to find you face down someday on the street.'"
Fortunately, Sprayregen is still standing. And he hasn't throttled back. In the past three years, he has represented many billion-dollar companies in Chapter 11 proceedings, including Ameriserve Food Distribution, Harnischfeger Industries, Inc., and Trans World Airlines, Inc. Currently, he is representing UAL Corporation (the parent company of United Airlines) in its Chapter 11 filing and counseling Conseco, Inc., and Ziff Davis Media Inc., in their restructuring efforts.
Besides diligence, Sprayregen - a 1985 graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law - has a particular talent for forging consensus, say colleagues. Bankruptcies are often contentious, with lawyers trying to out-scream and out-intimidate their opponents. But Sprayregen, ever the midwesterner, goes for the congenial, low-volume approach. "He can bring parties together to resolve tense situations because he rarely if ever gets angry," says Ron Rittenmeyer, a turnaround specialist who worked with Sprayregen on the Ameriserve bankruptcy. Adds Todd Snyder, managing director of Rothschild Inc.: "He is a hail-fellow-well-met type. He can get along with virtually anybody. That is important for a debtor's attorney, who has to deal with customers and stakeholders and trade creditors. You need the personality to deal with many different styles."
Kirkland's fortunes have risen along with those of Sprayregen. When he arrived in 1990 from Chicago's Rudnick & Wolfe as a senior associate, Kirkland had only five bankruptcy lawyers. Sprayregen's goal was to enlarge the practice and develop his own client base, independent of the firm. He's succeeded. Sprayregen says he originates almost all of his business and, as head of the firm's bankruptcy department since the mid-nineties, has overseen the department's growth to 65 lawyers. Kirkland has long talked about litigation, private equity, and intellectual property as its three main business pillars. Now it has a fourth, says Evanich - bankruptcy. "We believe we are now and will be among the very best [bankruptcy] players in the country," he says. "Jamie is a major reason that practice has taken off."
Sprayregen - who is married and has three children - shows no signs of slowing down. "I'm pretty hungry still," he says. "I have a lot of energy, and I love what I do." So does Kirkland & Ellis.
"45 Under 45: Where are they now?"
What has happened to the "45 Under 45" whom we identified in December 1995? Some have gotten married, some have had kids, some have gone in-house. One became an Iron Man, one ran away to the Canadian Rockies (but came back). And only one has left the law altogether. Here's a brief look at what the alumni of our last list of rising stars have been up to lately.
Emily Nicklin (49)
Partner, Kirkland & Ellis, Chicago
Nicklin still doesn't shy away from tough cases, recently representing Chicago in its bid to expand O'Hare International Airport and Morgan Stanley in a gender discrimination case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
George Stamas (52)
Senior Partner, Kirkland & Ellis, Washington, D.C.
In 1999 Stamas left his Piper & Marbury partnership to become vice-chairman of Bankers Trust Alex. Brown, Inc. But after three years of investment banking, he joined Kirkland & Ellis, where he has focused on energy industry products. An evidently patient man, he is also an investor in the Baltimore Orioles, the Washington Wizards, and the Washington Capitals.
This article is republished with permission from law.com and the January 2003 edition of The American Lawyer. © 2002 NLP IP Company.