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

Cynthia Urda Kassis is Global Project Development & Finance Practice Group Leader and a Lead Industry Coordinator for Metals & Mining.

She focuses on project finance, joint venture transactions, and restructuring in the mining, energy, and infrastructure industries.

Cynthia’s clients include corporations, traditional and alternative financiers, government agencies, and development institutions.

Describe your practice area and what it entails.

The Project Development and Finance practice focuses on the development, financing, operations, and expansion of large capital projects in multiple industry sectors—including the power sector (today, particularly renewable energy and climate change-related technology transactions), natural resources (including oil and gas and mining and metals—critical minerals projects), and infrastructure (including transportation—roads, rail, ports—water, transmission, and data centers). It is a very broad practice in the sense that it runs the gamut from the development phase through the financing phase and beyond to expansions, sales, and even restructuring, in addition to crossing multiple industries. It is an evolving and dynamic practice, strongly connected to what is happening in the world and you can read in the headlines.

What types of clients do you represent?

We represent a broad range of players in the Project Development and Finance sector.

We represent companies that are developing capital projects, providers of debt funding, equity investors, those who invest through hybrid structures, service providers, and more. This would include commercial banks, private equity and other types of funds, governmental agencies, multilateral institutions, and commodity traders—in the case of funds, whether general or specific (i.e., focused on ESG, renewable energy, climate change, critical minerals, or supply chain security matters).

With respect to government players, we represent the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and other U.S. entities like U.S. EXIM Bank and DFC, which focus on international development activities. As to multilaterals, we represent the World Bank’s IFC and export development banks from other jurisdictions (JBIC in Japan, KfW in Germany, or BNDES in Brazil).

What types of cases/deals do you work on? 

We recently completed the Belize Blue Bonds transaction where we worked with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in its innovative $364 million financial transaction with the Government of Belize that will enable the country to reduce its debt burden and generate an estimated $180 million for marine conservation, in support of Belize’s commitment to protect 30 percent of its ocean, strengthen governance frameworks for domestic and high sea fisheries, and establish a regulatory framework for coastal blue carbon projects.

We worked with ENGIE, an international power company, on its decarbonization efforts in Chile, which included a financing with IDB, one of the World Bank entities, which pioneered a financing technique that would allow ENGIE to retire early certain fossil fuel plants and switch to renewable energy assets.

We are also working with an international junior mining company (Australian, Canadian, and Argentinian) as it develops a lithium project in Argentina, and we worked with the Department of Transportation on its TIFIA Program, including its funding for the refurbishment of Penn Station, creating Moynihan Station in New York City.

Finally, we have been working with the Panama Canal Authority for almost 15 years in connection with its canal expansion and other projects.

The above examples serve to reflect the breadth of Shearman & Sterling’s Project Development and Finance practice.

How did you choose this practice area?

Back in high school, I was an exchange student in Latin America, which piqued a keen interest in the region and led me to pursue an undergraduate degree in international studies with a focus on Latin America. A few years later, when I graduated from law school, I was looking for a job that would keep me involved in this region.

This is how I began my career at Shearman & Sterling, coincidentally at a time when the region was really opening up and when investors were using Project Finance as a way to mitigate political risk concerns when it came to investing in the region. The more I understood Project Finance, the more interesting it became. To this day, Project Finance remains intellectually challenging to me as it continues to evolve with the world.

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

I’m not sure that I have a typical day—and that’s what keeps my job interesting.

On some days, I could spend a lot of time on the phone with clients looking at structuring transactions, talking through a specific objective they are trying to achieve, and weighing and analyzing the pros and cons of the different options they may have.

On other days, I could be negotiating a term sheet, a credit, or other agreement virtually or in person.

A lot of my day to day is, I guess, analyzing proposed projects and the different ways of structuring transactions for those projects—the best ways to achieve client priorities and how to analyze requests coming from the other parties in the transaction.

“How can we come to a mutually accepted resolution of the issues that need to be resolved in implementing the transaction?” is also a common question I seek to address through my conversations with clients.

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

That’s an interesting question because I always say that so much of law school is really focused on litigation and on training lawyers to be great researchers and litigators. I think gaining experience at transactional clinics can provide students interested in transactional practices with hands-on experience, and a practical look at what a transactional practice is actually like at a law firm. I know NYU offers transactional clinics, particularly I know they have an international transactional clinic that one of our alums, Deb Burand, runs as we work with that clinic from time to time. Hands-on, practical experience will allow students to apply what they have learned in theory and will prepare them for what to expect in a transactional career in law.

What do you like best about your practice area?

First, I like the concrete nature of the practice and the fact that our work can actually lead to a physical facility being built, which will hopefully better the lives of many people. Also, you can track the progress and results of your work over time—which I find incredibly rewarding. I can see Moynihan Station and walk into it. I can visit Panama and see the new set of locks. I can physically see and tour the renewable energy projects. Seeing our work come to life like that helps us realize the impact it can have on communities.

Second, I like the fact that Project Finance is an area that is constantly evolving, newsworthy, and relevant. Climate change, for instance, makes its way to headlines every day, and it drives a lot of the work we do.

Third, that same work can be global in nature, which leads to us working on projects in different countries across the globe. This also shows us that one size doesn’t fit all and that context is crucial to any transaction work we engage in.

What are some typical tasks that a junior lawyer would perform in this practice area?

Junior lawyers will spend time doing research on particular issues that come up in the context of the transactions we work on. As part of their training and development, they will also be involved in client calls and negotiations, and may be working on closings, preparing secretary certificates, or interacting with clients and counsel for the parties involved in the transaction in preparation for closings. As they progress in their careers, they will begin preparing initial drafts of key documents and they will be part of the negotiations and the preparation of issues lists that come out of discussions. Depending on their interests, levels of comfort, and desire to step up and take on more and more responsibility, they can manage their progression to becoming involved in all aspects of a transaction.

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

Our practice is in a continuous state of evolution. For instance, climate change and the technology needed to mitigate climate change are front-and-center and we are witnessing a lot of our transactions being affected by or driven by that. There are a lot of projects involving existing facilities looking to decarbonize, reduce the amount of water they use, or generally become more environmentally friendly. There are also a lot of transactions coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic as they relate to supply chain security arrangements and climate change issues. I expect to see the practice continue to evolve as the world evolves.

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

It all depends on what projects we have going on at that particular moment in time. We try to involve summer associates in a couple of different stages of projects, including sitting in on the initial discussions structuring the transaction, being present during the negotiation process of the documentation, and being in the room when we’re closing a project.

At our firm and in our group, we try our best to expose our associates to the multiple and different aspects of a career in Project Development and Finance.