Voice of Experience: Patricia Hammes, Partner, Project Development & Finance Group and Co-Head, Sustainable Development Group, Shearman & Sterling LLP

triciahammesBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

A deep interest in economic development originally led Patricia Hammes to a career in project finance law at global law firm Shearman & Sterling. But as sustainable development has become increasingly important from a business standpoint, Hammes has become a passionate leader of the firm’s work in this sector, with a particular focus on renewable energy resource development.

While Hammes, a partner in the firm’s Project Development & Finance Group and co-head of the Sustainable Development Group, says she finds the work personally rewarding, she is quick to drive home the business case for renewable energy, clean technology, and other related areas covered by the firm’s Sustainable Development practice.

“It’s going to be a fundamental part of our economy going forward, without a doubt, and on an international level,” she said. “This is a great fit for a firm like Shearman & Sterling and for my practice, which is global in nature and involved in cutting-edge transactional work.”

From the Peace Corps to Shearman & Sterling

Hammes was always strongly interested in economic development, and after joining the Peace Corps in 1986, she was off to Honduras. The experience was especially intense, she noted, given the ongoing Contra war in neighboring Nicaragua and the political instability of Central America as a whole at that time.

“I worked in youth development, and it was a great but very challenging experience,” Hammes recalled. “They say ‘it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,’ and that’s true. It helped me focus on who I was, my abilities, and the work for which I was best suited.”

When she returned from Honduras, she began working for the City of New York in the Office of the Budget. “I was dealing with law, income, and housing development – and it really tied into my interests,” she said. “That’s when I decided to go to law school. So after five years of exploring possible career alternatives I found my way into law school. It’s funny, because when I was little, I always wanted to be Perry Mason.”

Hammes called her experience at Washington College of Law at American University “phenomenal.” When it was time to look for a job, her father, who had been working at Citibank in the mining finance department for most of his career, suggested she consider Shearman & Sterling for its US and global work and reputation. “I didn’t know a lot about corporate law, but I was amazingly impressed with the firm’s culture when I visited,” she said. “One of the partners who interviewed me even wrote a thank you note to my thank you note!”

After graduating first in her class at law school, Hammes’ road to Shearman & Sterling was delayed by yet another opportunity. When she was offered a clerkship at the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, she took it. “I couldn’t pass it up,” she explained. “It was a great experience in honing my legal analysis skills, and this experience had a lasting impact on the way I review and draft legal documents.”

After a year, she was ready to accept Shearman & Sterling’s offer. She joined a group at the firm that focused on transactions in Latin America – a perfect fit considering her strong interest in Lain America from her time as a Peace Corps volunteer. While she was exposed to a wide variety of transactions, including in the restructuring and capital markets area, she quickly developed an affinity for project finance and the way it keyed into her interest in economic development.

Taking Risks: Formative Career Experience

“Working in project finance in Latin America really appealed to my interest in development, dealing with infrastructure and energy. I joke that it’s partially genetic because my father worked in the project finance in the mining space for most of his career,” she began.

“When I first started at the firm I wasn’t sure where my career would take me – I had a strong interest in ultimately pursuing something more public policy-oriented but found the work challenging and engaging,” she said. Then, in 1999 the firm asked if Hammes would be interested in taking a role at its Hong Kong office. At first, she wasn’t sure it was the right opportunity, but finally the late Bob MacKinnon, a well-known bankruptcy partner at Shearman & Sterling, convinced her. “I said I would go for three to six months,” she said. “And I worked on a huge restructuring. It was an extremely complicated deal and I worked in a small office, so I had a tremendous amount of responsibility. It was incredibly challenging but also really rewarding!”

She continued, “I had to think creatively and be independent. While the firm initially asked me to consider staying in Hong Kong for an additional period, for a number of personal reasons I wanted to get back to New York and ultimately chose that route. However, my time in Hong Kong was really a formative career experience.”

Almost a year later, Hammes got another terrific opportunity to prove herself. The firm had instituted a new sabbatical initiative for associates. She took advantage of the sabbatical to work in-house for Bechtel Corporation in San Francisco.

“This was during the bubble, and Bechtel was involved in investing in a number of businesses including in the internet space,” she said. “It was an interesting experience, but to some extent it helped clarify that I fit well within the law firm environment and that at heart was – and still am – a deal junkie! I came back to Shearman & Sterling, and rolled up my sleeves.” Hammes was elected to the partnership shortly thereafter.

The Importance of Being Flexible

But the markets are unpredictable. And Hammes’ experience shows the value in being flexible and open to change. After 9/11 and the subsequent slowdown of the markets, her practice changed. Although she was made partner with a focus on project finance in Latin America Hammes began to focus more on the energy space in the domestic US market.

Initially that work focused on the restructuring activity that was occurring in the US merchant power space and then, as the acquisition market took off, on the acquisition and related financing of power assets. “At that time we made really serious inroads into the US markets in this area and were getting calls left and right from all of the major banks involved in financing these types of assets,” she said.

“The firm also began thinking more about the sustainable development and renewable energy sectors and saw tremendous growth potential for the firm’s practice in these sectors, and I was asked to lead our efforts in that area,” she added. “I’m really proud to have built a reputation that people reach out to and to be working with a team, to ensure that Shearman & Sterling is a well-known name in the energy sector in the US. Teamwork is really important to me; there really is strength in numbers.”

Hammes’ experience provides a good example for young lawyers and other professionals. “Flexibility is important,” she advised. “It is good to be an expert or a specialist, but you need to be more than that. You want clients or colleagues to reach out to you as the market constantly evolves.”

“I have had to reinvent myself and be flexible and nimble in adjusting to changing markets and client demands,” she added. “Over the years I remember not being sure how a particular assignment really fit into where I thought my career was developing or where my knowledge base was, but, looking back, I now see that you learn and grow when you challenge yourself and work in areas in which you don’t consider yourself an ‘expert.’ It is always important to be open to learning about new ideas and new ways of addressing issues and to take on new challenges.”

Rewarding Work in Sustainable Development

Currently, Hammes is actively involved in projects representing the US Department of Energy – work she finds very interesting and challenging. She recently led the US government’s first loan guarantee for a key transmission line in Nevada, a landmark transaction that was widely reported and touted by the Administration.

“There’s a tremendous market in the clean tech area and in the development of renewable energy infrastructure,” she explained. “We’re at the start of something that I believe will become an increasing part of our way of life and economy — the development of sustainable energy resources and technology. It is great to be involved in the early stages of something this important and feel that you have the opportunity to participate in the development of an industry sector. It’s good work, and it’s personally rewarding.”

Hammes, who co-leads Shearman & Sterling’s Sustainable Development Group with fellow New York partner Robert Freedman, explained that in the long term, the firm plans to leverage its expertise in the area in fields like green building, climate change, derivatives and IP. What she finds most interesting moving forward, she said, is “how it all fits together on a global basis for firm-wide deals.”

In addition to US projects, the firm is working on projects like clean tech in the Middle East and green building in Europe.

Advice for Women in Law

Hammes said the main career challenges she encounters arise out of the need to network in a male- dominated industry. “As a partner, business development presents more challenges. Making the right connections with senior-level clients – particularly in the oil and gas field – can be difficult,” she explained.

“From a career development standpoint, as I became more senior, there were fewer women on the same level – which means more barriers to networking. For example, I don’t play golf,” she said with a laugh.

But on the other hand, Hammes said, she has been fortunate to have terrific mentors, like Cynthia Urda Kassis, an internationally recognized projects lawyer who was recently featured on The Glass Hammer. “In my group, over half of the partners are female, and the group’s management is led by several female partners,” she said. “It’s a very nurturing and friendly environment.”

Young women entering the profession should recognize that they will have to make personal and professional choices, but making time for one’s self is important, Hammes said. For example, she recalls the time when, as an associate, she enrolled in a contemporary art class, just to have some fun and ensure a better work/life balance.

As women progress in their careers, Hammes continued, it’s important to focus on business skills. “Get coaching on management,” she advised. “It helped me focus on my strengths and attributes and to manage my associates better. I became much better at training my associates rather than stepping in and doing everything myself.”

And in a professional career in which she’s done so many things, Hammes continues to look for the next challenge.