On November 2, Co-Chair of Gibson Dunn’s Global Mergers and Acquisitions Practice Group Jeff Chapman visited the University of Iowa to talk with law students about his career path and his advice for becoming a successful lawyer.
“I knew I wanted to be a mergers and acquisitions lawyer when I was 13 years old,” said Mr. Chapman, who grew up in Des Moines. In his youth, he considered Warren Commission attorney (and then-partner at the Des Moines firm of Belin Lamson McCormick Zumbach Flynn) David Belin to be an inspirational figure, so it was no surprise Chapman chose to attend law school at Harvard University after earning his BBA from the University of Iowa.
In Boston, Mr. Chapman “took everything he could at the law school,” when it came to working toward his career goal. His only regret was not getting an MBA alongside his JD, as “taking more business courses while I was there would have given me broader business perspective as well.”
Looking back on his own academic experiences, Mr. Chapman encouraged the current law students at Boyd to “study hard, but don’t be preoccupied with grades. Do the best you can, get to know as many people you can in law school, network heavily, and get involved in activities like law review, clinic, and others.”
He added, “I find that every time I give, I get back: so be involved, give civic organizations your time, and expect that good things will happen.”
Upon receiving his JD, Chapman moved to Texas, where his practice eventually led him to Gibson Dunn in Dallas in 2011. That year, The American Lawyer called Mr. Chapman’s move from Vinson & Elkins to Gibson Dunn one of the 20 most significant lateral moves in the US legal industry.
By 2013, Chambers USA designated Chapman a “Star Individual,” making him the only corporate lawyer in the history of the state ever to earn that distinction. In 2015, Law360 named him as one of the country’s top five private equity lawyers. Just this past year, BTI Consulting named Mr. Chapman to its 2017 Client Service All-Star MVP list, which honored 54 US lawyers “recognized year after year for their dedication to delivering the best service to their clients.”
“If you’d told me [the year I graduated law school] that I’d have the good fortune I’ve been lucky enough to experience, I’d have laughed,” said Mr. Chapman. “The thing that helped me as much as anything,” he noted, “was to be fearless in networking and get involved in the local community.”
Another key to Mr. Chapman’s success, he noted, has been his strategic approach to negotiations.
“I never try to defeat an opponent. Instead, I try to win him or her over,” he explained. “That’s one reason why I appreciate sitting across from great lawyers [in negotiations,] because great lawyers always know what’s important and what’s not. That lets you focus the issues that are genuinely important so you can find a mutually beneficial resolution and avoid arguing over things that don’t matter as much.”
Though his work has been demanding, sometimes requiring “100-hour weeks and all-nighters,” Mr. Chapman explained that corporate lawyers can still strike an appropriate work-life balance.
“I never missed a soccer game, never missed a parent-teacher conference,” he said. “It’s possible to be a human being, a good father, a good mother, and still be a good professional.”
For those aspiring to become mergers and acquisitions lawyers, specifically, Mr. Chapman encouraged hands-on experience with attorneys in the field.
“Most M&A lawyers start out as M&A lawyers, but it’s also possible to get into corporate law by doing litigation and learning transactions from the inside out,” he said. “The best way to learn is to work with great lawyers and learn from their example, but always remember not to betray your own style.”
Whether you are a student going into corporate law or another area of law, Mr. Chapman offered a final piece of universally applicable advice: “Be as nice as you can to everybody, and never burn any bridges. Always look for the common ground.”