Top Lawyers: Nicholas Rodríguez Of Jones Day On The 5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law
… Patience is crucial for any attorney who handles transactions. There are times when you must slow down and take time to iron out details, let parties consider the options, or allow for additional due diligence. After weeks and months of intense negotiations, many parties often become wary of the process. If you allow the difficult circumstances to drain or alter your energy or passion, it may also affect one’s focus and attention. I have had numerous experiences when it was easier to throw in the towel. However, persistence, grit, and leadership often paid off, and I was successful in getting the parties to focus on the relevant issues and not the distractions.
The legal field is known to be extremely competitive. Lawyers are often smart, ambitious, and highly educated. That being said, what does it take to stand out and become a “Top Lawyer” in your specific field of law? In this interview series called “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law”, we are talking to top lawyers who share what it takes to excel and stand out in your industry.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Rodríguez.
Nicholas Rodríguez is a partner at the international law firm Jones Day, where he focuses his diverse corporate practice on structuring, negotiating, and executing complex domestic and cross-border mergers and acquisitions (M&A), corporate transactions, and corporate governance. He has extensive experience representing strategic companies, private equity investors, and family offices in the energy, blockchain, infrastructure, financial services, media, and telecommunications sectors, based in the United States, Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Nicholas was born in Medellín, Colombia, and is fluent in Spanish.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. What is the “backstory” that brought you to this particular career path in Law? Did you want to be an attorney “when you grew up”?
The irony of it all is, that I didn’t grow up with a passion to be an attorney. Rather, after graduating from New York University with a degree in Economics, I was convinced that I wanted to be in the “business world.” I wasn’t quite sure what that meant or in what capacity, but I knew I wanted to promote change and help others succeed. After having worked for a year in the business world, I felt called to return to school to expand my horizons and get an MBA. While familiarizing myself with the top MBA programs, I read about joint JD / MBA degrees. I have to say, that idea piqued my interest. I immediately decided that a law degree would be beneficial to my then-developing business career. The truth is, it was not my intention to be a practicing lawyer. I did eventually develop a passion for business law and I haven’t looked back since then.
Can you tell us a bit about the nature of your practice and what you focus on?
Absolutely. Throughout my career, I’ve been driven to help business owners and executives achieve their vision for their respective companies by often handling the trickiest and most challenging parts of inorganic growth and expansion — M&A transactions and investments. I am responsible for leading and managing a diverse team of lawyers, specialists, as well as business teams in structuring, negotiating, and executing complex domestic and cross-border corporate transactions. I principally focus on mergers and acquisitions, private equity investments, divestitures, leveraged buyouts, joint ventures, recapitalizations, restructurings, and corporate governance.
You are a successful attorney. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? What unique qualities do you have that others may not? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Love this question. I have been blessed by many people throughout my life that have helped me become a successful attorney. These individuals taught me early on to always fully apply myself. If I wanted to succeed, I couldn’t give up or dwell on any setbacks or difficulties. This mindset fueled my innate competitive spirit and helped me develop other skills that have proven to be integral in my academic and professional life, namely resiliency, grit, and emotional intelligence. I have been successful throughout my career, in part, because during difficult or trying moments I have leaned on my faith, courage, emotional strength, mindset, drive, and the determination to push forward no matter the circumstances. Said differently, to believe in me, when perhaps others may not have been so convinced. Often, the biggest challenge is just showing up!
I recall that during law school, I was elected as Editor in Chief of the St. John’s Journal of Legal Commentary (the first Latino ever to hold that position for that publication). One of the first tasks I undertook was to select a symposium topic on Environmental Racism (it was a topic that was starting to garner attention but was not widely covered). I was also determined to have it covered by a local cable company and/or other media outlet. It was not initially embraced by my fellow editorial board (but they came around and worked tirelessly on the symposium), and I had to convince the administration that it was possible to have it broadcast despite some skepticism. It was ultimately broadcast and was immensely successful. My mentor and friend, Professor David Gregory, spoke about that event for years after the fact. I was passionate about the event and was determined to see it succeed. I didn’t allow any negativity to dim my passion for that topic.
I was also taught by my parents to be authentic and humble and to serve others without expecting anything in return. My parents immigrated to the United States from Medellín, Colombia, and were the typical blue-collar immigrant family that tirelessly worked and made sacrifices so that their children could have opportunities that were not available to them. I honor my parents and their sacrifices by displaying many of their core traits, as well as showing gratitude for the many opportunities I have received throughout my career. I believe my clients and colleagues have always valued and appreciated those traits and it has permitted me to build deep and meaningful professional relationships. For example, while working on transactions for my clients at Jones Day, I am not focused on myself but rather being focused on ensuring that a client’s goals and expectations are met in an efficient and effective manner.
Do you think you have had luck in your success? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe my faith plays a bigger role than luck in my success. Believing there is a bigger plan for myself and showing up every day with gratitude has created “luck” and opportunities, which I like to call blessings, throughout my life. For example, having clerked for the Honorable Kenneth Hoyt and the Honorable Oliver Wanger, allowed me to develop this incredible learning agility muscle and a keen sense of judgment and analysis. These skills have been instrumental and transformative in shaping and advancing my legal career and skill set.
Do you think where you went to school has any bearing on your success? How important is it for a lawyer to go to a top-tier school?
I’m a firm believer that life is what you make of it. A top-tier school absolutely helps to open doors, but it doesn’t always equate to one becoming the most successful attorney; rather, it’s often the work the individual puts into his or her career. I was blessed to attend excellent schools — New York University, St. John’s University, and Columbia University. The experiences and learning I gained while at each of these institutions certainly prepared me for my future, but I was also determined to make and get the most out of any institution I attended.
Based on the lessons you have learned from your experience, if you could go back in time and speak to your twenty-year-old self, what would you say? Would you do anything differently?
After embracing and acknowledging my 20-year-old self, I would encourage him to dream bigger dreams and not be so self-reliant. I would encourage him to learn to reach out to others and work on building and maintaining relationships rather than being entirely focused on excelling at school (though that is critical, one needs balance!). I have truly been blessed to have so many wonderful mentors that have enriched my life and helped me forge a successful career path. One example was Professor David Gregory, who was a friend, a mentor, and my law school professor. He always encouraged me to think outside the box. David routinely reminded me that nothing ventured is nothing gained. As a result of David’s relentless insistence, I was able to secure two federal clerkships, which are very prestigious and helped shape my then-fledgling legal career. Another phenomenal mentor of mine has been the Honorable Kenneth Hoyt, who has been an exemplary role model of servant leadership, humility, dignity, intellectual curiosity, and composure. He is an amazing jurist and an even better human being.
This is not easy work. What is your primary motivation and drive behind the work that you do?
My family and my faith have always driven me. My parents were my initial driving force and over the last 18 years, it has been my wife and my three daughters. As a parent, you begin to see the world with new purpose and motivation. The legacy you will leave behind. My desire for my daughters to have even more grit, perseverance, and work ethic than my own family of origin drives me to work harder. Working with businesses in disruptive and transformative sectors allows me to aid in a small way in creating a future where my children can thrive.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
The structuring of a non-fungible token (NFTs) company is easily the most interesting project I’m working on now. While I normally handle corporate matters, I find that assisting with the corporate structuring of companies in emerging industries allows me to best serve those and other clients down the road.
Where do you go from here? Where do you aim to be in the next chapter of your career?
Great question! This reminds me of a quote by Louis L’Amour: “There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. Yet that will be the beginning.” In that light, I am open to new opportunities and am committed to continuing to grow, evolve, and learn. As an M&A partner at a large international law firm, I am singularly focused on effectively and efficiently leading a team to, among other things, sign an agreement, close a transaction, and/or mitigate or eliminate business and/or legal issues for my clients. I am passionate about that role and my professional experiences and am appreciative of the leadership skills I’ve been able to gain. I do not know what my next chapter will look like, but I do see myself using my skills and traits in an expanded leadership role while inspiring and helping others to achieve or take a step towards achieving their respective dreams and goals.
Without sharing anything confidential, can you please share your most successful “war story”? Can you share the funniest?
I have had the opportunity to experience numerous war stories, many of which were challenging and/or difficult but they were always instructive. Personally, the success has come from learning from these experiences and becoming a battle-tested attorney. That said, having been named a partner at a large, international law firm was a significant accomplishment, but that has not been the most meaningful. One of my proudest moments has been closely working with a young, bright lawyer over the last eight years and watching him grow and flourish into a confident, accomplished and determined lawyer. He was named as a partner this year and I was thrilled that all his hard work paid off.
The funniest story is a business trip I once took to Dallas. The airlines misplaced my luggage so after checking in to my five-star hotel, I asked the staff to dry clean my suit, etc. Early the next morning, my garments were returned, and somehow, they managed to shrink my suit making it two sizes smaller and the suit jacket was branded with an iron burn mark. The meeting was promptly at 8:30 am and I had to show up in a tattered suit. I felt like the Incredible Hulk — minus the superpowers! I survived the initial laughs and jokes and had a successful meeting, despite, my wounded ego!
Ok, fantastic. Let’s now shift to discussing some advice for aspiring lawyers. Do you work remotely? Onsite? Or Hybrid? What do you think will be the future of how law offices operate? What do you prefer? Can you please explain what you mean?
I currently work hybrid but spend more time in the office. As an M&A attorney, I’ve always had to travel to meet with clients and found that my office could be just about anywhere. Law offices will operate in the manner that best suits them and their clients. Firms that need to meet clients at their offices will be onsite, those with more flexibility will choose to be hybrid and those that have no need for an office will forego one. That said, I truly believe that the office setting is important for purpose of training younger attorneys. It is easier to engage and teach others when they are physically present in the office.
How has the legal world changed since COVID? How do you think it might change in the near future? Can you explain what you mean?
The pandemic accelerated the digital transformation, especially in the legal space. I believe we’ll continue to see the use of technology to facilitate proceedings, transactions, and the administration of law firms. Many companies are finding ways to successfully utilize new technologies to grow, advance and scale. More and more, I am seeing law firms successfully implement these solutions.
We often hear about the importance of networking and getting referrals. Is this still true today? Has the nature of networking changed or has its importance changed? Can you explain what you mean?
I believe in the power of relationships. Building a network can happen through a variety of means — offline and online. Yet, people continue to refer business to those they know and trust. This will always be true. The internet has definitely added multiple venues to connect with and build connections.
Based on your experience, how can attorneys effectively leverage social media to build their practice?
Consistency is key! I recently began posting consistent and intentional content on my LinkedIn. It has been helpful to rekindle old relationships and develop new relationships through Linkedin. The outpouring of support from individuals I had not seen in years but maintained a connection with online was a positive outcome that I did not expect.
Excellent. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things You Need To Become A Top Lawyer In Your Specific Field of Law?” Please share a story or an example for each.
The five things you need to become a top M&A attorney are curiosity, patience, endurance, an open mind, and a passion outside of law.
Curiosity is a crucial trait when working with any type of business. You must be curious about the nuances of a client’s business, the proposed transaction, and the objectives of the transaction. Being curious from the outset has saved me many times when deals got complicated. Being well informed, was often the perfect tonic to address the complication.
Patience is crucial for any attorney who handles transactions. There are times when you must slow down and take time to iron out details, let parties consider the options, or allow for additional due diligence. After weeks and months of intense negotiations, many parties often become wary of the process. If you allow the difficult circumstances to drain or alter your energy or passion, it may also affect one’s focus and attention. I have had numerous experiences when it was easier to throw in the towel. However, persistence, grit, and leadership often paid off, and I was successful in getting the parties to focus on the relevant issues and not the distractions.
Endurance, or the ability to endure, is a critical skill set that should be developed in law school. It is difficult to survive in any profession without endurance. This is especially true in the M&A space. While we all want to cross the finish line quickly, the ability to run the long game has helped me and my clients reach a successful outcome. I recall as a first-year attorney, I was eager and keen to lead negotiations and discussions. I had many opportunities to develop those traits, but I realized that I needed to learn my craft before being thrown into a lion’s den.
If you want to lead complex crossborder transactions, you must have an open mind. Not only are you dealing with all types of businesses and personalities, but you’re also challenged with understanding different cultures, legal systems, and issues (both business and legal). There are nuances to doing business in each country and without an open mind and the qualities I mentioned above, you’ll quickly sour a possible deal or negotiation. In certain countries, I have learned to listen more and be deferential rather than taking on the stereotype of the aggressive U.S. lawyer.
Finally, you must have a passion outside of the legal profession. The ability to focus on something other than work allows my mind to think differently and be balanced. It could be a hobby, a sport, or any outside activity that inspires and rejuvenates you. For me, it’s my family that keeps me grounded, faith-based, and (extremely!) busy, but I am treasuring every second of it. It allows me to show up to work re-energized and re-focused on facing the challenges of my profession.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
I would love to go back in time and interview many people. Among the top of the list would be Jesus Christ, George Washington Carver, Joan of Arc, Thurgood Marshall, and Nelson Mandela. Currently, I would be thrilled to meet Jamie Kern Lima, a self-made entrepreneur, co-founder of IT Cosmetics, author, philanthropist, and champion of women. She and her husband, Paulo, co-founded a cosmetics company in their living room, and despite years and years of disappointments, rejections, and financial and personal hardships, they were able to build a creative and successful cosmetics company. Their company, IT Cosmetics, was sold to L’Oreal for $1.2 billion in 2016. I would be thrilled to speak with Jamie about her challenging experiences, perseverance, determination, faith, and grit. Her story particularly resonates with me because I have had to develop many of these traits in my career. It would also be an opportunity to introduce my three amazing daughters to such an inspirational and thought-provoking role model.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!