Some transatlantic firms rush to plant flags around the globe. Some hold high-profile energy summits. Sullivan & Cromwell opts for a more low-key approach. The firm eschews ring-fenced teams of lawyers in the energy sector, preferring to see it as one avenue of work for a broad range of its practices.
New York partner Michael Wiseman, a member of the firm’s global management committee, insists: “We have a clear focus on our energy practice but we don’t think of it as a siloed energy practice. We think of energy as an important part of the project finance practice, corporate and M&A and litigation. It’s important to people who don’t necessarily see themselves as energy practice lawyers.”
Despite Sullivan’s no-fuss approach to the sector, it has undoubtedly scooped some enviable energy-related deals of late. Equally, its relatively modest network of offices has infiltrated clients’ thinking in some of the world’s most remote locations.
A prime example is last year’s $14bn project financing for ExxonMobil’s LNG project in Papua New Guinea, in which Sullivan acted as counsel to the project and its sponsors.
The massive deal, financed by a group of export agencies and more than 15 commercial banks, involved a fully integrated LNG project, including the exploration, development and production of natural gas in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, transportation of the natural gas 450 miles to near Port Moresby, processing into LNG and transportation of the finished product to customers in Asia.
Wiseman says lead partner Fred Rich’s long-term reputation in Australia and Asia and Sullivan’s historic relationship with ExxonMobil helped seal the deal.
“Fred has spent a lot of time in Australia and Papua New Guinea, and a lot of time in the energy and natural resources sector,” he says. “He’s been going to Papua New Guinea since he became a partner, which was about 25 years ago, and has developed a real expertise there and got to know the energy and natural resources companies.”
Sullivan has also won a variety of instructions from troubled oil giant BP in the past year. Led by partners James Morphy, John Evangelakos and Christine Spillane, the firm acted as global coordinating counsel to BP last July on its $7bn sale of assets in the US, Canada and Egypt to Apache Corporation.
In November partners Stewart Robertson and Richard Morrissey advised BP on the $7.1bn sale of its 60 per cent interest in Pan American Energy to Bridas Corporation.
“BP has also turned to us for litigation matters, especially after what happened in the Gulf of Mexico,” Wiseman adds. “When we think about our energy practice it’s that ability to bring expertise from so many areas together, and BP is a great example of that. We were pleased to be helpful to them on a number of fronts.”
Rivals may be muscling in on Sullivan’s established presence in Asian hubs such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Tokyo, but the New York firm is intensely focused on opportunities in the region.
“There is no geographic sector that we consider to be more important to us in the long term than Asia,” Wiseman admits. “We continue to see a lot of opportunity there, we’re active in Hong Kong and we’ve added some Japan associates. We intend to be competitive in Asia and continue to look at opportunities.”
A region in which Sullivan has been conspicuous by its absence so far is the Middle East, and Wiseman concedes it is an area the firm is watching closely.
“We don’t have a compulsive desire to plant flags in a lot of cities, but we’re very interested in the region and have a number of good relationships there,” he says.
But would the conservative Sullivan entertain the prospect of opening up shop in the Middle East?
“We’ve been around for a long time and nothing is impossible,” Wiseman says. “It depends on how the markets develop and what our opportunities are in these areas.”
Joe Frumkin, Fred Rich, John Estes, Jim Morphy, Jamie Logie, Stewart Robertson
Top three sectors
Hydrocarbons (including oil and gas)
Top three geographical regions
$14bn Papua New Guinea LNG project
Lead partners: Fred Rich, John Estes, Neal McKnight, Craig Jones, Robert Chu
BP’s sale of upstream assets in US and Canada and concessions in Egypt to Apache
Lead partners: Jim Morphy, John Evangelakos, Christine Spillane
$7.6bn sale of E.on US to PPL Corporation
Lead partner: Joe Frumkin