Voice of Experience: Cynthia Urda Kassis, Partner and Co-Head of Project Development & Finance Practice, Shearman & Sterling LLP

Urda Kassis CBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

It would be fair to say that Cynthia Urda Kassis, a Partner and Co-Head of the Project Development and Finance Practice at Shearman & Sterling LLP, is a bit of a globetrotter. In her work, which involves arranging financing for infrastructure projects all over the world, Urda Kassis sometimes participates on site visits to see first-hand the fruits of her labors.

“Young lawyers are always very excited about the chance to travel around the world,” she explained.
“In my work, it’s very important to learn about different legal systems – for example, what they prioritize and what structuring flexibility they allow.”

“And it is very interesting to travel – you get to see a lot of places. But it’s not typical sightseeing. I see a lot of offices, conference rooms, and airports – you don’t get to go on a lot of safaris.”

In a career that has made her one of the most highly sought-after project finance attorneys in the US, Urda Kassis tries to never lose sight of what attracted her to the law in the first place.

“The law is very diverse,” she explains. “There are a multitude of different subjects and practice areas within the law. I tell young lawyers all the time: find the area of law that really excites you and piques your interest.”

An International Career

For Urda Kassis, that is project financing on an international scale. Her work has taken her from the Panama Canal to Hong Kong and all points in between – and she’s managed to find something interesting to learn no matter what industry or kind of project she’s working on.

After earning her bachelor’s degree from the University of Virginia and then her master’s in International Studies from the University of Notre Dame (focusing on Latin America), Urda Kassis considered a career in academia. But job prospects were challenging in academia at the time so Urda Kassis decided to go to law school, graduating from the American University, Washington College of Law in 1984. It was a fortuitous career change, to say the least.

Urda Kassis started out by working for the Agency for International Development on infrastructure projects, and then began working in international law in New York. “I landed a position at Shearman & Sterling upon graduating from law school and I’ve been here ever since,” she said.

In her years at Shearman & Sterling, Urda Kassis has developed an international reputation both for her understanding of the law and for her business sense. She said, “I’ve done so many interesting transactions, and I’ve managed to keep clients for a long period of time. I enjoy seeing how a transaction fits into the overall strategic plan for the business and how it helps the local economy or population.”

A crowning achievement for Urda Kassis has been her work on the financing of the expansion of the Panama Canal. Not only is the project itself world-changing, but Urda Kassis’s personal contributions to the project have earned her widespread recognition, including a “Dealmaker of the Year” award from The American Lawyer, one of the most coveted honors in law.

But it’s not the recognition, though, Urda Kassis says. “This is a part of history,” she explained. “And since the actual construction of the expansion has begun, all the parties involved are hopeful that the new, expanded Canal will be operational by 2014 – on the 100-year anniversary of the original opening of the Canal.”

“The organization in charge of the Canal is extremely professional, and I’m proud of how our Shearman & Sterling team worked with them on this unique project.”

Project Finance Law

Urda Kassis explained that project finance is essentially a practice area that is part finance and part corporate law. She generally spends time with corporations or government agencies developing large projects like copper mines, airports, or other projects, and she regularly interacts with the banks and other financing agencies that fund these important projects. Her work largely involves negotiating – shareholder agreements, financing plans, commercial contracts, etc. – but there is a strong creative component as well.

“These are never cookie-cutter projects,” she said. “Each is very unique and very important to all the local and international parties involved. You have to be a good listener and understand varying points of view and priorities, and you have to make this all work in the confines of local and international law.”

What Urda Kassis likes best is that the legal documents she prepares are living documents – the critical architecture in creating and financing these important projects.

“In project finance you almost always have real, tangible evidence of what you are working on,” she said. “You begin by seeing the field that in a few years will become a power plant. You see in local economies the benefit from improved infrastructure – roads, housing, or water treatment plants – that improve the quality of life for local residents. For these reasons, this is a very concrete practice.”

“And I find it very intellectually challenging because there’s always something new – a new region of the world you’re working in, a new technology you have to learn, a new company, a new industry. You are constantly crafting solutions on how you achieve results under the applicable legal framework.”

This is what is most rewarding about the law, Urda Kassis believes. “It never feels like Groundhog Day in the international sector!” she said with a laugh. “You’re constantly modifying your framework to fit a new jurisdiction or a new project.”

Advice for Women in Law

Urda Kassis explained that she’s never felt she had to approach her work differently because she is a woman. She said, “I’ve been in meetings when I was the only woman, but I’m not sure my advice for women is any different than my advice for any young lawyer.”

First of all, she said, make sure to maintain relationships. “At the beginning of my career, I wish I had realized how small the world is,” Urda Kassis said. “Ten or fifteen years ago, I didn’t realize how often people cross paths. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve reconnected with bankers, lawyers and others – and sometimes halfway across the world and in completely different circumstances.

“So, as a young lawyer or other professional, keep in touch with people. It’s always a good thing.”

Other skills are also important. “The more senior you get, the more diversified a skill set you need to have,” Urda Kassis said. “As a junior lawyer, you spend time learning the law so you can help craft legal documents. But at some point, you will master your legal skills and will be challenged by broader business skills — like how to market your practice and how to bring in business – that you don’t really learn about in law school. ”

Through it all, though, Urda Kassis said she takes the most professional pride in making a difference. “I came out of my undergraduate studies and law school wanting to change the world,” she recalled. “I hope, in some small way, I have.”