Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your professional experience?
Westra: I have been a lawyer for 30 years, working primarily in the private equity and M&A areas. Four years ago we opened an office for Weil Gotshal in Boston with a focus on corporate transactions, litigation and bankruptcy. I am the Managing Partner of the Boston office, and I also co-head the firm's private equity practice worldwide. I am a member of the Managing Committee as well.
Sullivan: I graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1996, and I have been a corporate and transactional lawyer for the past 10 years. I joined Weil Gotshal in 2002 with the opening of the Boston office and became a partner this year.
Editor: What were the things that attracted you to Weil Gotshal?
Westra: I had been practicing at a mid-sized firm for a number of years. My practice was successful, but as it grew and became more sophisticated it became increasingly clear that I needed to get to a larger platform if I wished to continue to provide the services that my clients required. Weil Gotshal offered an opportunity for me to take my practice onto a strong platform with both national and international capabilities. In addition, a private equity practice such as mine requires a capital markets presence, a strong tax capability and a New York presence, and Weil Gotshal was in a position to provide all of these resources. It has been an excellent move for me.
Sullivan: After spending time with another large law firm and in an in-house corporate legal department of a public company in Pennsylvania, I decided to move back to Boston in 2002. I was looking for a firm with a global platform and a sophisticated practice, but one with a workplace environment that differed from that of the large firms. Jim Westra indicated that he was establishing a Boston presence for Weil Gotshal, and I was fortunate to be able to join an office that met all of my goals.
Editor: Please tell us about your practice. How has it evolved over the course of your career?
Westra: After a less than sterling performance in the litigation arena my first week as an associate, I became a corporate lawyer. My career has evolved in tandem with the evolution of the private equity industry, and with the passage of time I have been able to handle an increasing volume of private equity deals and of ever increasing size. The development of this industry has not been entirely smooth, however. There was a strong technology market during the late 1990s, and the venture capital work done to finance those deals was booming. When the technology bubble burst, a number of firms that had focused on that area did not survive. Firms with a more balanced practice were able to weather the storm, although nearly everyone suffered from the collapse.
One of the areas that has gained momentum in recent years is life sciences. There has been a great deal of venture financing in that area lately.
Sullivan: My career has developed in a way that largely tracks the economy. I have been fortunate in becoming a corporate transactional lawyer at a time when the private equity sector was expanding. Since the technology bubble, the size of the transactions I handle has increased, but the focus tends to be a function of what is hot in the economy, with a strong emphasis on private equity in the past couple of years. We continue to have a very strong private equity practice.
Editor: Please tell us about Weil Gotshal's expansion to Boston. Is there a particular strategic need to be met with a Boston presence?
Westra: While Boston is one of the centers of private equity work in the country, and has a number of the country's largest funds, the expansion reflected more of a desire to attract talent than to move into Boston per se. The firm recognized that by setting up a Boston office it could acquire a team of 15 lawyers, and the clients they represented, in an area - private equity - which had long been a firm focus.
Editor: What are the disciplines and practice areas that are particularly strong at the Boston office?
Sullivan: Our Boston practice is primarily focused on corporate transactions. We represent a wide range of corporate clients, with a large base of well known private equity firms and do general corporate counseling for a number of our clients. We also have a strong litigation practice, particularly in white collar criminal defense. We also have a very extensive bankruptcy practice.
Westra: We do not try to cover all the bases at our Boston office. While we have 40 lawyers here, we are a phone call away from an additional 1,100, and we work seamlessly. Our core areas are the corporate transactional practice, litigation and bankruptcy, and we are able to draw upon the full resources of the firm to handle anything requiring expertise that does not reside here.
Our single-firm approach to client service means that in a typical corporate transaction we will pull together a team of lawyers from four or five cities. The environmental work might be done out of Washington, senior financing work out of Dallas, high yield financing from New York, and so on. These are concentrations of expertise and experience drawn from all across the firm.
Editor: Is there an international dimension to the office's practice?
Westra: Very much so. About a quarter of the nearly 1,200 lawyers in the firm are outside the U.S. While most of these are in Europe, we have 30 lawyers in Asia, and we see Asia as the source of much of our future growth. One of the reasons I decided to join Weil was my realization that an international capability was going to be increasingly important to our clients. That has proven true. Among the transactions we are handling at present is an investment on the part of clients in Boston and Los Angeles in an Internet company in China, an acquisition of a company in Dallas by a German enterprise, the sale by U.S. investors of the second largest broadcasting company in Germany to a group of UK investors, and so on. I spent a month in Madrid last summer working on the acquisition of a Spanish cable company. One of the principal differentiators between our firm and the others in Boston is the magnitude of our global platform.
Sullivan: When I returned to Boston, I was focused on the importance of finding a firm that had overseas capabilities. Being in a strong financial market means that a successful law firm must have the resources to be able to handle international transactions. Almost all of the transactions we work on have some international element, and Weil Gotshal's resources across the world enable us to service all of our clients' needs. We are unique among the Boston firms in this regard.
Editor: What about expansion? Are there areas that you have targeted for growth?
Westra: We have a focused growth plan. In the next years I expect the office to have between 60 and 70 attorneys, although we are not wedded to any particular size. We will continue to emphasize our core practices, and we also anticipate developing a strong stand-alone public company practice. On the litigation side, we will continue to develop our civil and white collar practice. Our patent litigation practice is one of the best in the country, and it will continue to grow. The life sciences industry is growing, and we anticipate meeting needs in that arena.
Editor: Mr. Westra, you have been active in civic, charitable and community affairs in Boston. Please give us an overview of this aspect of your life.
Westra: I serve on several boards, including the Boston Symphony, the United Way and the Boston Rescue Mission, a homeless shelter. I believe that it is important to give back to the community. Many of these non-profits are operated by people with the best of intentions, but very often they lack the organizational skills that lawyers have developed in their practices. We can make a difference, and we encourage all of our attorneys to take an active role in charitable and community activities. Among other things, this type of work represents an opportunity for professional growth.
Editor: Would you share with us your thoughts on how this type of activity enhances the public image of a law firm, its reputation and standing in the community?
Westra: If done correctly, this type of activity enhances the reputation of a law firm. It is really impossible to fake a commitment, and if one goes onto a board and works hard to advance the organization's mission, that reflects well on the individual and on his or her firm. I became involved in the United Way because it has an important role in improving the quality of life in Boston, and I am now the organization's de facto counsel.
Every lawyer at the firm is expected to provide at least 50 hours a year in pro bono service of one kind or another, including providing access to the justice system for those who cannot otherwise afford it or service to organizations such as the United Way. This demonstrates our commitment to Boston, and although we do not do this work for that reason, it enhances our reputation and our standing in the community.
Sullivan: The concept of public service echoes throughout the firm. Each of our offices has a strong reputation for its commitment to civic, community and pro bono work. In Boston, we do work with a number of local organizations including the United Way and Lawyers' Clearinghouse. Given my athletic background, I have done work for some high school and local amateur athletes.
Westra: Pro bono activity and community work is a real morale builder. In a very short time we have developed a reputation as a great place to work, something that is of very great value in recruiting at law schools and in lateral hiring. I am certain that the public image we have built as a consequence of these activities - as a good citizen in addition to being a terrific law firm - is playing a role in our success in hiring excellent young talent.
Editor: What about the future? Where would you like to see Weil Gotshal's Boston office in, say, five years?
Westra: We started the office four years ago. Our idea was to become a firm in Boston to which the Boston business community turned with its most complex problems. That was something of an audacious goal for a 15-person office, and while we have not yet fully achieved that goal, we are certainly moving in the right direction. In five years I would like to see us as a 70-lawyer office that has achieved that goal.
Sullivan: The Boston legal market has experienced a number of significant changes in recent years, with several out-of-town national firms setting up offices here and some local firms exiting. Weil's Boston office provides unique opportunities for both attorneys and clients. We are able to service the global needs of our clients from a relatively small office, and allow attorneys to practice at the very top of their profession in a different environment.
Published March 1, 2007.