The surname “Woolery” in eastern Kentucky has become synonymous with success. There’s Chuck Woolery, the handsome and engaging game show host famous for his tenure on Wheel of Fortune and Love Connection from the 1970s through the ’90s. There’s his cousin Bob Woolery, the well-respected and accomplished attorney-at-law who has represented the legal interests of eastern Kentuckians for decades. But the Woolery getting the most attention — not only in Kentucky but also on a national and international level — is Jim, Bob’s son, who is arguably one of the most successful mergers and acquisitions (M&A) attorneys on Wall Street today.
In February, at the age of 43, Jim Woolery was named deputy chairman of one of the most prominent law firms in the world, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, headquartered in New York City. According to an article published by The Wall Street Journal (Feb. 24), this move puts Woolery in line to succeed the firm’s current chairman, W. Christopher White.
Typically, success stories like Woolery’s include tales of ups and downs, successes and failures. But for him, the road to success was pretty straightforward.
Growing up as the son of an Ashland attorney, he was exposed to a number of influential lawmakers and businesspeople, some of whom held key leadership roles at the community’s flagship manufacturer, Ashland Oil. Among these folks were Jim Stephenson and the late Dick Spears, both then attorneys for Ashland Oil. There was Henry Wilhoit, a federal judge and a prominent lawyer in eastern Kentucky. There was Richard Nash, one of his father’s best friends and a successful lawyer in Louisville. And there was John Hall, president and CEO of Ashland Oil at the time.
As a child, he would attend events at the local country club and listen in on his father’s conversations with friends and colleagues about what business issues they were facing. While most 8-year-olds might find these conversations intolerable, young Jim found them intriguing.
“My father brought clients home to our house a lot, and my mother would cook for them,” he said. “They had a lot of events at our house that were business-oriented, so that had a big impact on me.”
As an undergrad at Wake Forest University, Woolery studied history and political science. One summer he interned at Ashland Oil, helping out in the company’s print shop. It was during this experience that he became familiar with Sam Butler, a renowned corporate attorney at one of the country’s premier law firms, Cravath, Swaine & Moore, who was then a board member at Ashland Oil.
Woolery went on to obtain a law degree from the University of Kentucky. While his intention was to practice law in Kentucky, he also wanted a “big firm” experience before settling back home. That’s when he reached out to Sam Butler, who eventually hired him as a summer associate at Cravath.
“I was the first summer associate from Kentucky,” Woolery explained. “Most of their students came from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford or Chicago. I don’t think they would have taken me if I wasn’t No. 1 in my class.”
Little did he realize this move would launch a 17-year career with the firm and pave the way for him to become one of the leading M&A dealmakers in the world. But, how did this small-town Kentucky boy make such an impression on the movers and shakers of Wall Street? According to him, it all stems back to his experiences growing up in Ashland.