Leaving the law

After 12 years, Robert Plehn has called time out. The Sidley & Austin partner is turning his back on the law, the cosy confines of partnership, and more than a decade’s worth of legal experience, to join investment bank ING Barings, not as a lawyer, but as managing director and head of European securitisation.

Plehn is one of a small but growing number of high-profile lawyers who are not only leaving their firms but are quitting the law altogether. Two years ago, Clifford Chance‘s head of finance, Robert Palache, quit to become director and joint head of securitisations at Nomura’s principal finance group after 18 years as a lawyer. And earlier this year, Rupert Pearce, head of Linklaters & Alliance’s internet and e-commerce group, left to take up a non-legal industry role.

Long-term UK and US client ING Barings approached Plehn during the summer about the newly created role. It had been part of global head of securitisation Ken Cox’s remit but it was decided that a separate position was needed in response to the burgeoning European markets.

Plehn says that because ING Barings is a client, he already has a unique insight into the bank and what the role will entail.

But one insider says Plehn’s road ahead will be a rocky one: “The skill sets are complementary but they are not nearly as close as lawyers would like to think. Lawyers like to think they are involved in about 90 per cent of the deal but in fact it is only about 30.

“There is a great deal that goes on that you only discover when you become a banker. There will be a lot of stuff that he is going to have to see and experience for the first time. Nothing can replace the fact that he does not have years of banking experience.”

The “stuff” includes pricing, marketing and mastering complex mathematical structures as well as managing a team of 16 bankers based in London, Dublin and Amsterdam.

Yet the quietly spoken 38-year old American appears calm about the challenges ahead. While he concedes that he will “have to work double time getting up to speed to become a banker”, he is still confident this is the right job for him.

“There are not a lot of clients or institutions that I would have gone to,” he says. “But this is an easy move in that it is a client and I know them. I have always been interested in the business side and gravitated towards the commercial.”

Plehn, who was brought up in the New York suburbs, joined Sidley & Austin when he left Harvard in 1988. He spent three years in New York before being seconded to Dutch firm Nauta Dutilh for six months.

In a way, it was this move alone that defined the rest of his career. He immediately felt at home working and living in Europe and jumped at the chance to return to the Dutch firm, with which Sidley & Austin has a non-exclusive relationship, six months after the initial secondment came to an end. From there he moved to Nauta Dutilh’s Paris office and, in November 1993, to Sidley & Austin’s London office and his first securitisation deal – he had previously worked in general corporate.

Plehn says: “I was pulled in for a deal that involved five or six jurisdictions. I found [securitisation] very interesting, something that had a future in Europe despite the previous false dawns.

“I did not really like practising law until I undertook this sort of work. It is like putting this giant jigsaw together and there is real scope for the lawyers to get involved. You are not just sitting there being the human scribe who documents.”

It also gave Plehn the excuse he was looking for to stay in Europe. “I find doing business in Europe more civil. There is a lot of posturing and needless antics in New York. It is quite wasteful and I got quite tired of it after a while. Here, you are not sitting about arguing over representations and warranties for hours, which gets very tedious,” he says.

His permanent home is now in London, his two young children attend UK schools and Plehn regards returning to the US a “doubtful possibility”. But he has decided against becoming UK-qualified, arguing there is no point when in a firm that has a raft of UK-qualified lawyers.

But such concerns are in the past for Plehn, or will be as of January 2001 when he takes up his new role.

One of the first things he will need to get to grips with will be his team. The current number of 16 is expected to grow in the near future as the Belgian and German arms are brought in under his control.

One ex-lawyer banker believes this will be his hardest challenge. He says: “In law firms your assistants do your job. If they all fell down dead tomorrow, you could still do their jobs – you may not be able to do as many deals, but you could still do the job. But that is not so in a bank. The skill sets are diversified. I have people here who have brains the size of a planet and I couldn’t do their jobs in 50 years. You cannot supervise. The best thing you can do is make sure the approach they are taking is the right one. You then learn to live with the fear.”

Fear may well be the right word. Plehn concedes that quitting Sidley & Austin was still a tough call. “There is a personal aspect in leaving a partnership where you really do depend on each other very closely. You are the institution. Clearly, going to work for a bank means you answer to different people, to shareholders, and they are not people you know,” he says.

Plehn’s departure could also be construed as a blow to Sidley & Austin’s securitisation practice. Only weeks before, partner Jane Borrows announced she was quitting for Herbert Smith, taking client JP Morgan with her (The Lawyer, 4 September).

But the ever-modest Plehn is not one to read it that way. “Ironically, [Sidley & Austin] may do better now that I have left. I did not know it was going to pan out like that but in my mind it was the right thing to do,” he says.

Plehn is referring to securitisation partners Nick Brittain and Dennis Dillon and assistants moving to London from New York and Singapore respectively. Washington securitisation head Marc Wassermann is also joining the London office. In his mind, the scales are significantly tipped in the US firm’s favour.

But then he would say that, wouldn’t he? When pushed as to whether the door has been left open at Sidley & Austin, just in case things do not pan out the way he expects, he answers coyly: “No one says something like that formally but I would like to think that my partners would like to have me back.”
Robert Plehn
Managing director and head of European securitisation
ING Barings