US firm Cleary Gottlieb has an impressive track record of recognising emerging markets and developing international commercial trends and exploiting the consequences of political and economic change.
When Europe was emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, Cleary was one of the first firms on the scene. It was also one of the first US outfits to establish a competition/antitrust practice in Brussels, and even had a hand in the development of the eurodollar market, which involves the deposit of US dollars into foreign banks and the trading in derivatives based on those deposits.
The firm opened its Moscow office in 1991 (while the city was still technically in the Soviet Union). And the firm advised on the first Russian sovereign Eurobond offering and the only four SEC-registered IPOs by Russian companies since its 1998 financial crisis. “There are particular challenges doing transactions somewhere like Russia, one of which is of course corruption,”senior sources at the firm have let on.“As a lawyer that means you have to be creative. If you have a client who wants to buy a business in Russia, you have to make sure they’re aware of the risks and downsize their risk potential as much as possible through good lawyering. It’s not cookie-cutter type work; you have to think outside the box and consider risks that you wouldn’t be thinking about in developed economies. Emerging markets work can be extremely stimulating, but it’s not for those who shy away from a challenge.”
Cleary was also one of the first on the scene in another emerging market: Africa. The firm has gained experience in over 30 African countries in the past 40 years, leading on a number of high-profile deals in some of the continent's key industrial growth sectors: energy, telecoms and infrastructure. The firm has represented several African governments too, including those of Egypt and the Democratic Republic of Congo (neither of which are the most stable regimes in the world, we would point out). As one junior lawyer told us: “A lot of firms have the roster of work we do but don't let juniors get involved; Cleary, on the other hand, has sent me on multiple trips to New York, Dubai, Brussels, Sweden and Moscow – often on my own or just with other young lawyers. The firm knows it can trust us.”
Cleary helps give local industrial heavyweights an international presence, usually through stock market listings. “It is less strict and less by the book,”an associate explained to us. “Our goal is to effectively guide them through the process. Part of that is making sure that there are no skeletons left in the closet, that their corporate governance is as good as it would be in Europe, and that we are able to sign off on them as legitimate. At a very basic level you often just have to educate them about business law.”
The firm also works across the Middle East and has a long-standing presence in Latin America, where it has facilitated M&A transactions worth more than $135 billion since 2006, and counselled in the restructurings of more public and private sector Latin American debt than any other law firm. In August 2017 the firm represented the Republic or Iraq during an international debt issuance worth over $1 billion.
Cleary's disputes practice also works on matters of international significance. The firm has represented Argentina in its ongoing disputes with its bondholders and defended Greece's response to the financial crisis before the London Court of International Arbitration. It also represented Russia in one of the world’s largest arbitration claims against a government before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which it lost in 2016. However, the Russian well of work shows no signs of drying up: the firm has now been chosen to represent Russia in a debt dispute with Ukraine in the High Court, in which Moscow is looking to recover $3 billion in bonds, as well as the not insignificant sum of $75 million in unpaid interest and legal fees.
Cleary has been an internationally-oriented law firm for over 60 years and trainees get heavily involved in this type of work.