elissa Sawyer ’00 handles big deals. How big? She represented AT&T in its $108.7 billion merger with Time Warner in 2016, Optum Inc. in its $4.9 billion acquisition of DaVita Medical Group in 2017, and Diageo in its acquisition of the Casamigos tequila brand from George Clooney and others in 2017. Those and dozens of other mergers and acquisitions led The Deal to name Sawyer, a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, one of its “Powerhouse 20” women in M&A.
But Sawyer has also handled small deals. How small? Try $1. That was the payoff in 2003 when Cablevision Systems Corp. sold its electronics store, The Wiz, to GBO Electronics Acquisition. When the paperwork was signed, GBO slid a single dollar bill across the table to Sawyer’s client.
“I think deals of all sizes are complicated,” Sawyer said, “but actually in the smaller deals, the small issues tend to have greater importance. You can end up debating things that, in a $100 billion deal, wouldn’t even be on your radar.”
Sawyer is doing what she has always wanted to do. Her mother still reminds her about a résumé she wrote for herself at the age of 12, listing her job as corporate lawyer. She misspelled “corporate.”
“It’s an incredibly intellectually challenging career path,” Sawyer said, explaining her lifelong fascination with M&A practice. “I’ve always loved the problem-solving aspect of it.”
But she also admits that her 12-year-old self was inspired by the movie “Pretty Woman.” Not by Julia Roberts or even Richard Gere, who played a high-flying financier. She liked the job of Gere’s lawyer, played by Jason Alexander, who was also, she acknowledged, kind of a creep. “For whatever reason I thought, ‘Yeah, I could be the lawyer,’” she said with a laugh.
Sawyer attended UVA after graduating from Washington & Lee University, where she majored in economics and political science. She has been at Sullivan for her entire career and now co-chairs the firm’s corporate governance and activism practice. On top of that, she is also a hiring partner, associate development partner, member of the firm’s managing partners committee, and chair of its knowledge management committee. Deals, big and small, still occupy most of her time though, and the pace has only gotten faster.
“You have to decide if you love it or not,” Sawyer said. “Some people naturally get an adrenaline rush from the excitement of a big transaction. I’m one of those people. I find it very energizing to be in the mix. That being said, I know how lucky I am to have a very understanding husband and children, because there are windows when I just can’t make it home for days at a time.”