The news that US IPO doyenne Julie Gao was leaving Skadden Arps to join TikTok owner ByteDance as Chief Financial Officer was initially greeted with shock and surprise by the market but, given a brief cooling off period, it seems like the move makes a lot of sense and is indeed part of an increasing pattern.
Gao’s stellar practice saw her dominate the US listings market for PRC companies in recent years but with that deal flow being stymied by increased regulatory scrutiny it does seem like an opportune time to explore a different path. She has already advised the company on major acquisitions of other online platforms so there’s obviously familiarity there, and rumours continue to swirl over a proposed listing in New York or Hong Kong (despite official briefings that there are no firm plans) where Gao’s experience and expertise would presumably be leant on, albeit her role is CFO rather than GC.
Also, this is just the latest case of a big name partner leaving the ranks of private practice for an in-house role at a tech enterprise on the rise. In 2019 Jeanette Chan brought down the curtain on 33 years with Paul Weiss to join digital payments startup Airwallex as GC. More recently, former Skadden capital markets colleague of Julie Gao Chris Betts withdrew from the firm’s partnership to take the mantle of GC at Grab Holdings in Singapore. Going further back, Leiming Chen joined Ant Group after ten years at Simpson Thacher & Bartlett in 2016, and, perhaps the standard bearer for this type of move, Tim Steinert was tempted away from Freshfields to join Alibaba Group way back in 2006. These are a few amongst many.
What is interesting to consider is the reasoning behind these moves. While the traditional, possibly outdated, mantra for moving in house was the pursuit of a more amenable work-life balance, none of the above roles could be viewed as slow-paced. Also these partners were at global elite firms, at the top of their pay grades, so despite any pleas of “it’s not about the money”, healthy packages and lucrative stock options are also a factor.
The centrality of these roles within the relative companies is something that is universally cited as being key however. Having spent their careers as outside counsel, the lure of being in the decision-making circle, in a unique position, in a booming and ever-evolving industry, is a compelling proposition for those who have, to a greater or lesser degree, reached the pinnacle of their careers in private practice. As tech start-ups continue to flourish and attract huge investment, we can expect to see a lot more of these types of moves in the coming years.