The news July 6 hit David T. Popwell like a cold shower. R. Brad Martin, the chief executive of Proffitt's Inc., had agreed to buy the parent of Saks Fifth Avenue for about $3 billion.

"I said to myself, 'I could be the greatest tax and business lawyer ever in Memphis and not do what he's just done.'" said Mr. Popwell, who was head of mergers and acquisitions at the biggest law firm in Tennessee and friend and counsel to Mr. Martin. "I was wondering if I had topped out at 38, and decided that if I got a chance to do something bigger, I would think about it seriously."

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