Skip to Main Content

The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.

Robert Freedman is a lead industry coordinator for Energy and a partner in the Project Development & Finance practice at Shearman & Sterling LLP.

He focuses on finance and development, asset acquisitions and dispositions, and complex work-outs and restructurings of infrastructure assets across the breadth of infrastructure sectors, including power, renewables, and sustainable development.

Robert’s clients include major corporations, private equity and other institutional investors, banks, and financial institutions.

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

We describe project finance as a sector-specialty practice as opposed to a product-specialty practice. In a product-specialty practice, you focus on one particular kind of transaction or a group of types of transactions regardless of sector. So, if you’re an M&A lawyer, you could be working with companies spanning various industries, such as health care, media, and sports. At the end of the day, M&A is M&A. When it comes to our work in project finance, we consider ourselves specialists in the energy and infrastructure sectors and work on all different types of products that apply to that sector. Within our group, we handle M&A, finance, and capital markets with the common theme being that they all relate to the energy and infrastructure sectors. Project Finance is one of the few practices that is like that.

What types of clients do you represent?

One of the things we are very proud of in our group at Shearman and one of the reasons why we are ranked so highly globally is the diversity of clients that we have. Our clients span every type of institution that invests in the energy and infrastructure sectors. They range from governmental entities, like the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Energy; multilateral entities, like the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank); development finance institutions; export credit agencies; and the private sector, such as General Electric, ENGIE (French energy conglomerate), and Dow. We also represent private equity and infrastructure funds, including OMERS, CPPIB, and Fortress, as well as large financial institutions, including commercial banks and investment banks.

What types of cases/deals do you work on?

As previously mentioned, one of things that really sets our group apart from other groups globally is the depth and breadth of sub-sectors and products that we cover. Our team is specifically designed to cover all sub-sectors in the energy and infrastructure space, including renewables, power, and other forms of alternative energy. In the infrastructure space, we cover everything from transportation to social infrastructure. Within these areas, each of us has a major, an area that we focus on and specialize in, and a minor, an area that we are proficient at but not what we are better known for.

My major is power and renewables with a focus in the U.S. My minor is general infrastructure-related work. The types of work that we’ve done even just this year range from the financing of a biomass pellet production facility in Arkansas to the refinancing of several power projects throughout the country to the financing of a portfolio solar project. We’ve also done a number of deals in the U.S. renewable space this year. On the M&A front, the firm represented CPPIB when it took private Pattern Energy, which is one of the country’s largest renewable energy developers.

How did you choose this practice area?

I have an undergrad degree in finance, so I felt like I wanted to do something business related.  I was also really interested in using my law degree to build something constructive. In researching different practice areas, I found the project finance practice area which focuses on actually building things like roads and power grids. In our group, we like to say we “turn the lights on in those places in the world where the lights were not turned on.” We build infrastructure in areas where that’s needed—in other words, we really do build necessary assets around the world.

What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?

That’s a hard one to answer because there is no typical day and that’s the beauty of working for a firm like Shearman. I would divide up my workload at the partner level into three different areas. My overall business is composed of deal and client-related work. Another part of my work is devoted to thought leadership or just market knowledge and research, and the third area is administrative. So, it depends on what is going on at a particular day, week, or month.

During a heavy deal-related month, my days are spent working on documents, closing matters, managing deal-related issues, and negotiating with different parties. On quiet days, I tend to focus more on thought leadership. I always try to devote some portion of my time to thought leadership or market knowledge, which means I spend a lot of time reading about what’s going on and thinking about how I can present myself to the market and how I can build my brand. In terms of the administrative work, as a partner, I’m responsible for helping to run the firm. I sit on the firm’s Recruiting Committee which oversees our recruiting efforts and summer program.

What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?

There tends to be two dominant camps on this issue: those who believe you can take a broad set of classes in undergrad and in law school and those who believe that you should focus on classes more tailored toward what you want to do. I don’t believe there is a “right answer” here but because I went to business school in undergrad, I tend to fall on the side of taking classes that you think are going to be relevant at some point to your practice. It’s important to hit the ground running. Classes that are appropriate to a project-related practice focus on topics like secured lending, corporate tax, bankruptcy, securities law, some type of administrative law class, and corporations. If you can take a negotiations class, that’s great. Some law schools also have actual classes in project finance. If you are at a law school that has that available and it’s something you are interested in, you should take it!

What is the most challenging aspect of practicing in this area?

By far the most challenging aspect is the breadth of knowledge and skills that you’re expected to have because it’s a sector practice, as I mentioned previously. In other words, you’re expected to know a lot about the sector, and then you’re expected to be able to cover all the different products in that sector. So you not only need to be well versed in how energy and infrastructure projects work, but you need to know how an M&A transaction is done, how a debt financing works, and how an equity investment works. There are certainly people within our group who focus more on one particular area than another, but I would say the best trained associates and partners in the group are those who have a very wide skill set. But by the time you’ve been doing project finance for seven or eight years or so, which is often the lifespan of an associate before they start looking into partnership, you really do get well versed. And at Shearman, we have a great flow of work to get you experienced.

What do you like best about your practice area?

One of the main things I like best is the diversity of deals and matters that you get to work on. This is the same aspect that makes the practice challenging. It’s constantly changing, so you’re not doing the same deal multiple times. You’re always doing something different—even similar deals across different sectors have different nuances to them. Second, this kind of work truly makes you feel good about what you do. For example, I work a lot in the renewable energy space—helping to reduce the effects of climate change. At the end of the day, you can drive along the coast in Hawaii and see wind farms up in the mountains and you know that you either bought or sold those, or you helped somebody develop them. As mentioned earlier, there are places in the world that never had the lights turned on until we helped somebody build a project there. It’s very rewarding work in that way.

How do you see this practice area evolving in the future?

I think it will evolve in a way that the economy evolves. The biggest topic right now in the energy sector is the transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy resources, and we’re one of the firms that’s very heavily involved in that energy transition. A lot of our clients who used to focus on the traditional energy sources—oil and gas, etc.—are setting up vehicles to invest in the “transition economy,” and we’re helping them on that. That includes things like large-scale battery storage, hydrogen fuel, and offshore wind, for example. We really try to be at the forefront of where our technology and the economy are taking us.

What kinds of experience can summer associates gain in this practice area at your firm?

We give summer associates as realistic an experience as regular associates have. Summer associates are really able to participate in a lot of deal-related work and thought leadership. For deal-related work, they’re going to be a member just like any other associate on the deal team. Regarding thought leadership, summer associates may be writing articles with me. During the last two summers, we worked together with an organization called The Deep Decarbonization Project on a large project drafting green bank legislation for different localities. This legislation is helpful for local municipalities that want to form a green bank and need the legislation to do that. That is an interesting project that summer associates have been working on with us over the last two years.