‘View From the Top’- An interview with Francisco J Cerezo, Partner, DLA Piper – Chair, US Latin America

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Francisco, you head up DLA Piper’s Latin America operations in the US right?
Yes. I am the US chair of Latin America. We run the practice through a Latin America Board which comprises the managing partners of each country. Obviously, no one knows better how to run Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Puerto Rico, than the people who are on the ground in that country on a day-to-day basis.

What are you seeing in terms of developing trends through Latin America? Are you seeing growth in a particular practice area or sector or country?
We offer a broad range of services throughout Latin America and we are somewhat sector agnostic so my answer here is really based on what we’re actually seeing and not on what our relative strengths are. We are doing a lot of infrastructure work at the moment. And by infrastructure, I mean a broad definition of infrastructure. It’s roads and energy of course but it’s also social infrastructure, particularly after the COVID epidemic there’s more need for housing, clinics, hospitals, even prisons. We’re seeing a lot of traditional infrastructure projects like roads and power done under P3 structures, but interestingly we’re also seeing a fair amount of social infrastructure projects under P3 structures now due to the liquidity issues in Latin America. If the sovereign state is flush with cash, then they could perhaps develop and execute the whole project on their own. But because of liquidity issues many countries have increasingly turned to public private partnerships to develop the projects and to finance them. So I would say that that’s an area that has been going on for a while in Latin America, but it’s continuing at a rather steady clip. After the pandemic we are seeing a more pronounced developmental need in the social infrastructure sector. It became very apparent that hospitals and healthcare clinics were not nearly at the level or in sufficient numbers that they should be.

You know, interestingly notwithstanding how often you hear about the volatility for political reasons in certain countries of Latin America, M&A and private equity continue to be quite active. Restructuring is active too but more based on certain countries where you’re seeing more activity like Argentina and Mexico, for example.

Broadly I would say law firms are unlike most other businesses. If you know how to navigate the different rhythms, you have different practice areas that are busier than others at any given time. But as a whole if law firms are nimble and can address different economic cycles they can prosper. And then when you’re Speaking about Latin America generally each country is very different. So there may be a country that’s booming, doing really well, and then there are more opportunities and often with private equity because capital is being deployed there because investors see that there’s an abundance and prosperity and things are going well.

What does your practice primarily focus on?
At my core I’m an M&A lawyer. I started in New York as an associate doing mergers and acquisitions doing a lot of telecom M&A. There was a boom back then in telecom M&A. Then I worked mainly on cross-border M&As in Latin America. That was really kind of my brand, if you will. And then from that you know when you get a bit older your role as an attorney evolves a bit more. You become a broader trusted adviser to clients. So I get brought in by clients on a series of other matters beyond M&A, but at my core I’m still a deal lawyer.

Is that mostly cross-border work? And for US clients doing deals in Latin America or is it the other way round?
Both as a firm but for me specifically, it’s a combination of US and global clients doing deals in Latin America and the prevailing applicable law for all of those deals is New York law. That’s the universally accepted law that will be applied on cross-border deals when you have a buyer from the US or even Europe or Asia going into Latin America or where the counterparties are in different Latin American countries. So basically my practice is a good mix of US and Global clients working in Latin America and Latin American clients doing deals regionally where their counterpart is outside of their home country. In any case it’s all done under New York law.

 What’s the best thing about living and working in Miami?
I moved to Miami from New York over 20 years ago. It’s a cliche to say but Miami is the capital of Latin America. I mean it’s a cliche based on truth, if you will. And so that’s one of the most appealing aspects of Miami to me, especially as I work with Latin America, everyone from Latin America flows through here – both friends and business contacts come through Miami. The city also has great direct flights to everywhere in Latin America.  There’s also a great quality of life in Miami. You know there’s great weather, apart from hurricane season,  great food, great beaches, the ocean,  outdoor activities and so on. It’s a really nice combination. Homelife coupled with the professional focus on Latin America, it works really well.

I understand you are from a legal family, where your Dad was an attorney and your Mom was the first Latina ever appointed to the federal judiciary, and the first Latina to become a chief judge in the federal judiciary? Were they your inspiration to get into law in the first place?
I’m very proud of my Mom, she’s doing really well and thriving at 82. She just retired a year and a half ago – she worked through to the age of 80 and she was appointed by President Carter. So she was there for: Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden – I mean she saw it all!

She’s certainly a role model and you know, everyone adores their Mom, right? I’m no different but putting aside the fact that she’s my Mom, professionally I’ve always had the greatest respect for her and everything she’s done. She was a trailblazing feminist when that wasn’t en vogue. She went to law school when women didn’t really go to law school, especially in Latin America.

You know, my parents never really tried to steer either me or my sister into one career. They had the old “whatever you happen to do just do it well” approach to things. So before going to law school, I decided to get a graduate degree in literature which in theory maybe could have meant that I was going to do something completely unrelated. My parents were very supportive and thought it was the best thing in the world. My folks never really pushed me in that direction, nor do I feel that they were necessarily the influence that took me to becoming a lawyer. But I’m sure at some level even if it wasn’t at the front of my mind just being in my family with all those exchanges and the intellectual discourse and the debates and all that, I’m sure, informed a lot of my life decisions. So it’d probably be disingenuous of me to say that the fact that they were both in the law didn’t weigh heavily upon my decision to eventually get there, but it wasn’t because they themselves in anyway shape or form tried to steer me in that direction.

With a graduate degree in literature, what else would you have done if you didn’t find the law?
Well, you know at that age, you’re not really sure, right? If you’re maybe going to write the next great novel or or teach poetry or who knows what? As a quick aside, when I was in in college, I was always a political person, grappling with ideas of social justice. And as I got to college through literature, I found I connected with a lot of ideas that resonated with me as a Puerto Rican man living in the United States. I found a lot of shared concerns from the writings of modern Latin Americans particularly those Puerto Rican authors who were grappling with some of the same issues that I was as a young man. But then I also then found the law and I thought it gave me the tools to actually do something. So while literature was very fulfilling because I found community in reading the writings of people who shared some of the same concerns that I had, I thought that with the law I would have more access to tools to actually effect change, both for myself, my family and my immediate universe.

Do you have a particular professional highlight, something you’re most proud of doing?
That’s a good question. In terms of deals, there’s so many that I’m proud of, things that I enjoyed about them, different challenges and so on. I know it sounds a little corny but in terms of professional highlights the number one for me has been to be a part of this firm and help develop the Latin America practice here and in particular launching our office in Puerto Rico. I am very proud of having been born and raised in Puerto Rico and for a long time had the idea that a global firm could do very well in Puerto Rico and that the Puerto Rico office of a global firm could play a meaningful role in the Latin America practice of a top global law firm. The idea that it could bridge the divide between Latin American civil law and US common law made sense to me. You have US trained lawyers raised as Spanish speakers like me who never went back professionally to their countries. But you know, my family, friends, my heart has always been with Puerto Rico. So to answer your question, I would say that to have been able to make that vision of having the Puerto Rico office be a part of a global firm and a key part of our Latin America practice is certainly a notable highlight for me.

And was that move a financial success as well?
Oh yes, it’s doing great. At the end of the day this is a business. Following through with a lofty idea that didn’t have legs wouldn’t have made sense.

Do you get any free time? What do you like to do outside of work?
I love being in the ocean. I’m an island boy, right? Raised in the Caribbean. One of the great things about being in Miami is the beach. I like being outdoors, spending time with family, friends. Dinner, a good book. Nothing particularly different but I tell you purposefully carve out that space for me. I learned a long time ago that I don’t want to work 24/7 because if you do, you’ll quickly get burned out and become less effective. So I do make the time to ensure that I have a proper meal with friends and the family as often as I can and certainly make sure that it’s not something of a rarity. I have always been somewhat disciplined about that. In the same way that I aggressively and proactively look out for the interests of my clients and the growth of the firm, I also take care on the personal front. I make a point of getting my exercises in, spending time with family, with friends, going to the ocean and so on otherwise one week of working 24 hours, seven days a week becomes a blur into the next and then pretty soon you’re just chewed up and spat out.

Is the importance of work/life balance something you impress upon the firm?
I think as a firm, that’s very much a part of our culture, our brand. We’re a global firm and we’re a large firm. I really like working here. It’s a firm that emphasises work/life balance and people treating each other with respect. People are truly friendly here. As a firm we do emphasise work/life balance and I know the anecdotal isn’t the empirical but from what I observe from the most senior partners to young associates I think everyone is striking the right balance. I’m sure we could probably point to some outliers who don’t always do this but generally I see this as a firm where people do try to strike a good work/life balance and that is encouraged from the partnership. It’s something I’ve observed over the years and across jurisdictions and our different offices and that makes me happy. I think it’s part of our DNA now. There’s a generational aspect to this too: when I started as an associate, it was a cliche that the partners were burning the candle at both ends of the sticks and not finding time for family or even for themselves. And I think with the passage of time and the influence of the younger generations, thankfully that cliche has diminished tremendously. I’m glad there’s a greater emphasis on work/life balance. I think ultimately, you’re better, you’re more effective in your professional life, and obviously you know we weren’t put on this earth just to crank out work.

You mentioned you see people treating each other with respect and this brings me on to diversity and inclusion within the firm. How important is this to you and how does D&I benefit the firm? Is there more to it than simply being the right thing to do?
I’ve worked at other firms. I have friends at many firms. I’m very aware of how many other firms address the issue of diversity and inclusion, and while I think everyone talks about it, not everyone lives and breathes it. We do and it’s as authentic as one could hope for. I will tell you that as a firm I find that we really believe in it. It really is part of our DNA. It’s at the core of what we are, who we are. This is as much a meritocracy as any firm out there. You see women at the highest levels of our firm. We are certainly not a boys’ club! The co-managing partner in the US is a woman. Several members of the board are women. Let’s take the San Juan office for example: over half of the partners are women, including a number of the practice leaders. You know, we are well represented by African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, every religion you can imagine, as well as LBGTQ+ people.

I think our people respond to the fact that we are a relatively young firm and often come here looking for a better way of doing things from perhaps other firms that carry the weight of 100 years of history of doing things in a certain way. As I say this is truly a meritocracy. So you find a wide range of people here who are not only geographically diverse, but in other ways. Now to be responsive to your question. I think it’s both. I mean you can do well by doing good is the bottom line. So I think that yes, we understand it. Yes, it is good for business, but it’s also the right thing to do and those two things are not and should not be mutually exclusive. And you could do both, understanding that it is the right thing to do and in doing the right thing it could also be good for business in myriad ways. So we do it. Because it’s the right thing to do, but of course it would be disingenuous to say that we also don’t realise that there’re benefits to the acquisition of talent, the retention of and development of talent and simply in having diverse talent. Now what that means is we’re a better firm with better ideas, better services and better products.  Our clients want to see that in us too. Yes, we’re aware of that, but we do it for the right, altruistic reasons. But we’re obviously also aware that it’s an important thing to do as part of our broader business goals.

You mentioned that it’s what clients want to see. That’s a really interesting point because I hear that sometimes clients are irritated, they go to the beauty parade and a diverse group of people show up but then when there’s work to be done, they disappear. Often there doesn’t seem to be any joining up of the client’s wishes with the law firm’s intent. Are you finding that and if so, are you seeing any penalties for a lack of diversity or clients coming to you because you are more diverse? Are clients now saying “right you must represent our values. If you don’t, you’re out”?
So yes, I mean I think you’re spot on in that many, many firms unfortunately trot out their diverse lawyers, and it would look like this rainbow of diversity of all colours and nationalities and then suddenly that would disappear. And I think clients got wise to it. They started demanding that the teams that actually work on the matters continue to be diverse. I think some clients have been more proactive than others and that there are some clients that frankly probably don’t really care. But in this day and age you want them to care and you hope that they would care. Encouragingly there’s a number of other very large clients, and even small ones that do care and make a point of asking that the staffing is done in a certain way.

How does that manifest itself in the real world?
Some clients track the data to make sure and make it part of their review of invoices and of their review and evaluation of our services. Who’s being brought to meetings? Who’s billing? How much time is that person billing? To make sure that the diverse lawyers aren’t just getting a little sliver of responsibility just for smoke and mirrors. I think clients are implementing measures as part of how they evaluate their law firms to make sure that diversity doesn’t stop after the after the beauty contest and the initial meetings. And then I also think that law firms are taking this very seriously.  We know how important it is for our development of our talent. We want all of our lawyers, including our diverse lawyers to grow professionally, to grow as individuals. If you don’t build them into the real teams doing the real work, if you don’t adequately mentor them, they’ll leave the firm and that’s ultimately not good for anyone. We’re also very practical, I think on the one hand you have clients demanding this. But as a firm we realise that it’s important for us to do this, whether the client is asking for it or not. We are very deliberate in making sure that we continue to staff things in a diverse way to promote diverse talent and engagement, put them front and centre. Get them in front of clients. Get them visibility outside of the firm. All of those things.

by David Adams, Managing Editor, Top Ranked Legal


Francisco J Cerezo





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