Taking The Leap From Corporate Lawyer To Private Practice

NYC lawyer left prestigious firm to tackle the field of law on his own

I started my legal career in New York at the law firm of Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP as a corporate associate specializing in private equity transactions. Throughout my four years at the firm I was part of a corporate team that advised clients in multinational and transcontinental deals with an aggregate dollar value of over $30 billion. I was lucky enough to advise sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, domestic private equity funds and worked with some of Wall Street’s largest banks on the formation of their private investment funds.

After four years at the firm I decided on a career change. I wanted something different than big firm practice. The experience I gained at the firm gave me confidence in my abilities. I worked under some of the best and smartest lawyers in the world and their commitment to excellence and perfection taught me what it meant to consistently meet client needs and solve their problems. In 2011 I decided to start my own legal practice, The R. Bernard Law Group, focusing on small to mid-market transactions in emerging markets while representing domestic start-ups and individual clients.

Much like my time at Cleary, my practice today continues to be transcontinental, though on a considerably smaller scale. I split my time working between Paris and New York and have represented clients throughout Sub-Saharan Africa in Mali, Ivory Coast, Kenya, South Sudan and South Africa. My clients are in a wide range of industries including energy, mining, private equity, health care and mobile technologies.

As an American lawyer doing deals in foreign jurisdictions the most important part of my practice is developing relationships with local lawyers. It is through their expert knowledge of local issues that I am allowed to effectively advise my clients on their matters. More importantly, having them on deals allows me to stay within my own ethical limits of not engaging in the practice of law in jurisdictions where I am not licensed to do so.

Working in Africa has been a wonderful professional opportunity. While the continent has its own unique difficulties and each country has its own set of cultural rules, I believe I am at the forefront of providing legal services to one of the world’s fastest growing economic regions. After the recent economic growth in Brazil, Russia, India and China many are looking at Africa as the next phase of global economic development. While there are many opportunities available on the continent, the small to mid-sized market enterprises continue to be underserved. It is fairly easy for an individual or corporation to find quality lawyers throughout Africa if they are doing larger deals but the search becomes a little more difficult for transactions in or around the five million dollar region. That is the niche I have carved out for myself and today I feel confident that I made the right decision leaving the law firm to pursue my own enterprise.

Working for myself also has its own unique challenges. For one, I do not get paid on a predictable cycle as I did before. Sometimes clients pay on time and sometimes they don’t pay at all. Forecasting earnings can be difficult but to combat that I require my clients to pay fifty percent of their fees upfront. Experience has taught me that a client unwilling to pay a sizeable portion of the fee upfront is likely unwilling to pay at all. Managing short-term capital issues is a dilemma for all entrepreneurs and I continue to sort out that aspect of the business.

The other challenge is what to do when workflow is not consistent. One of the things I underestimated when I started my business was the client development aspect of developing a practice, especially if that practice is international in scope.

When I worked at the firm, if workflow was slow I relaxed because I knew eventually things would be busy again. But as an entrepreneur there is no rest. When I am busy with work I focus on meeting client demands but when things slow down I have to put on my business development hat and pound the pavement for new work. In February I embarked on an eight-week road show throughout eastern and southern Africa because I needed to bring new clients onboard. Within two months I started reaping some of the benefits of that trip. I continue to work on the client development aspect of developing my practice as it is fundamental to the continued health and growth of the firm.

Starting any business is a risk. Starting a law firm as a young man under 30 is even riskier because people expect lawyers to be grey-haired men or women. The looks I have gotten from pitch meetings have confirmed this. A young lawyer considering starting his or her own practice should first focus on getting the baseline skills necessary to effectively serve client needs. My four years at Cleary were instrumental in the development of my legal skills and professionalism. Additionally, having worked at Cleary gives me credibility that I otherwise would not have. Having a clear sense of your skills set and the market you want to serve is also important. Because I have a niche practice — emerging markets as well as domestic startups — I receive referrals from people who are looking for someone within that specific set of skills.

In spite of the challenges, the practice has grown beyond what I thought it would when I first started. This fall I will be giving talks at some of the country’s leading business schools, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management, on doing business in emerging markets.

Each day presents its own set of challenges but the pleasure of working for myself and continuing to develop a business that I think is a pioneering way of serving clients globally has been its own reward.

Ricardo Bernard can be reached at rbernard@rbernardllp.com

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