The question of Debevoise & Plimpton’s prominence in energy circles was raised late last year when London-based partner Peter Rees quit the firm to join Royal Dutch Shell.
That might not be the firm’s chosen method of raising its profile, but it will surely be hoping to pick up at least a few crumbs from the oil and gas giant following Rees’s arrival.
Energy is not Debevoise’s number one sweet spot – the corporate-heavy New York firm is better known in the insurance and financial services sectors, coupled with its core specialism of private equity – but that’s not to say the blue-blood outfit does not feature in this market.
The firm’s energy group, headed by corporate partner Sarah Fitts and Latin American group member Maurizio Levi-Minzi, has broad experience in power, oil and gas development and transport in particular.
And while Debevoise remains best known for its deal-doing capabilities, the firm’s experience in the sector spans multiple disciplines, including project finance, bankruptcy, tax, antitrust and regulatory.
Indeed, Debevoise made a push to raise its profile in energy circles last year when, primarily via Fitts, it became an active member of the American Council on Renewable Energy, the body that promotes renewable energy. The firm subsequently invited Fitts to join its leadership council.
Indeed, Fitts has been one of the prime movers behind ensuring Debevoise sits at the top table when it comes to securing prime energy-related matters.
“I’ve been focused on energy and natural resources for 20 years, since I joined Debevoise in 1991 and worked on the Sakhalin Island oil and gas development project in Russia just after perestroika,” says Fitts. “A few years ago, when we saw that clients were looking for energy specialisation, I organised an energy practice group that brought partners together in new and creative ways to leverage what we’re good at on behalf of clients, backed by decades of experience in the energy space.”
Outside the US and Latin America, Debevoise’s primary focus is Russia. Indeed, it is fair to say that the natural resources market in Russia is one of two cornerstones of the firm’s practice, the other being work for private equity clients, both in terms of structuring funds and advising on acquisitions in the sector.
Debevoise’s Russian exposure stretches back to the early 1990s when a group of New York-trained partners relocated to Moscow just as the former Soviet Union began to open up.
“Our presence grew organically at first and then we began adding partners,” recalls corporate partner and former deputy presiding partner Chris Smeall. “Opening the office was a critical step.”
The practice, built on major oil and gas projects such as Sakhalin 1, 2 and 3, continues to be spearheaded by Moscow senior partner Dmitri Nikiforov, a lawyer who recently worked on four large-scale oil and gas development projects in various regions of Russia. Even today, relatively few of the big New York firms have such a significant presence in Russia as Debevoise.
The firm is representing Norilsk Nickel in connection with the proposed spin-off of its gold mining assets. It also secured a role in December 2010 for Uralkali on its $23.9bn Russian potash merger with Silvinit and was counsel in four out of the 10 largest private equity funds to close in 2010, one of which – the $4bn Alinda Infrastructure Fund II – was infrastructure-focused.
The firm is currently considering opening an office in Latin America. Currently, the Latin America practice is serviced primarily by a number of partners including Levi-Minzi, Michael Gillespie, Paul Rodel, Ivan Mattei and Greg Gooding.
Back in the US, Debevoise is targeting transactions in the electric power market, believing that the energy industry is at an inflection point, similar to what happened to the telecoms industry in the early days of the internet.
Sarah Fitts, Maurizio Levi-Minzi, Dmitri Nikiforov, Chris Smeall
Top three sectors
Oil and gas
Top three geographical regions
Sale of an interest by Sithe Global Power in Goreway Station near Toronto
Client: Sithe Global Power
Lead partner: Sarah Fitts
Mitsui and Anadarko Petroleum’s $1.4bn Marcellus Shale gas project
Lead partner: Chris Smeall
US Department of Energy’s $1.45bn loan guarantee for the Solana solar project
Client: US Department of Energy
Lead partner: Ivan Mattei