The following is an excerpt from Practice Perspectives: Vault's Guide to Legal Practice Areas.
Elizabeth Lenas, Partner—Private Funds
Elizabeth (“Liza”) Lenas is a partner based in Cleary Gottlieb’s New York office. Her practice focuses on forming and advising private investment funds.
Liza’s work includes private equity funds, growth funds, credit funds, venture capital funds, co-investment funds and other alternative asset investment vehicles, on fund formation, social impact funds, co-investments, spinoffs, joint ventures, shareholding arrangements, managed accounts, and other transactions.
She regularly counsels private investment firms, including TPG, TSSP, KKR, The Raine Group, Hillhouse Capital, and BMGI, in their fund formation and management activities. In addition, she has acted as counsel on consortium and co-invest arrangements in numerous large acquisitions. Liza’s practice also includes representing certain limited partners in connection with their investments in funds.
Liza has been recognized by Chambers Global, Chambers USA, The Legal 500 U.S., IFLR1000, and Who’s Who Legal. In 2017, she won the Americas Women in Business Law Award for “Best in Investment Funds” by Euromoney Legal Media Group.
Liza became a partner in 2013.
She received her J.D. from Columbia Law School and her B.A. from New York University.
Describe your practice area and what it entails.
My practice involves advising clients in every aspect of asset management, protecting and advancing their business interests in a broad range of industries and in every region of the world. I collaborate with my colleagues from a wide array of practice areas to assist clients in every phase of a fund’s life cycle: working on formation, making investments, implementing strategic initiatives, and exiting investments.
What types of clients do you represent?
I represent mainly private investment firms in a variety of matters, including fund formation and other investment management activities. I also have counseled firms in relation to the raising or investing in funds, spinoffs, joint ventures, shareholding agreements, managed accounts, and other transactions. My clients include large private equity firms, such as TPG and KKR; credit funds, such as TSSP; and growth and VC firms, like Raine. I also work with the investment offices of Bill & Melinda Gates in their fund and related investments.
What types of cases/deals do you work on?
I work with investment firms on the formation of a variety of funds across a wide range of business sectors. And although the work can be challenging, it can also be very rewarding. For example, my work for Hillhouse Capital included leading them in the formation of Hillhouse Fund IV LP, the largest Asia-focused private equity fund ever, which closed at $10.6 billion. What was unique and challenging about the fund was its speed in fundraising—there was an overwhelming appetite in the investor community to get into the fund. We actually had to turn some investors away. It put great demands on how we managed the project. Later on in 2019, however, we were thrilled to learn that Law360 honored us with an Asset Management Practice Group of the Year award for our work on this and a host of other high-profile funds.
How did you choose this practice area?
As a junior associate at Cleary, you are encouraged to try different practice areas, so I did a number of corporate assignments my first year. When I received my first investment funds project, I knew I wanted to be a funds lawyer. I loved my team at Cleary, and I loved my client, a major investment firm that is still my biggest client to this day. Investment funds was a small practice at Cleary back then. We had one partner who was trying to build the practice and two senior associates who focused on M&A but did funds work when needed. I became the first associate to do funds work on a full-time basis, and then I began to recruit juniors into the practice, develop relationships with new clients, and help build our practice, which today has five partners and more than 50 associates worldwide. I feel we formed a little startup within a large Wall Street law firm!
What is a typical day like and/or what are some common tasks you perform?
One thing I love about my practice is that no two days are exactly the same. As a main point of contact for my clients, I have learned to be flexible in my agenda so I can respond to any incoming questions or requests. Many of my clients are based around the world, which means I frequently travel for meetings. Between that and my other responsibilities as the firm’s hiring chair, I am always on the go—meeting with clients; answering calls and emails; or attending recruiting panels, events, and interviews. I never get bored and am always learning something new!
What training, classes, experience, or skills development would you recommend to someone who wishes to enter your practice area?
Much of your training as a private equity lawyer will be on the job once you begin. However, if you suspect you may have an interest in private funds work, I would advise taking finance, accounting, and investment classes during your law school career. While not a prerequisite, having a basic business background can be helpful for understanding our clients’ goals and the general investment market.
What misconceptions exist about your practice area?
One misconception is the idea that there aren’t many ways to make a positive ethical impact through corporate law work. I have found nothing to be further from the truth. I have been lucky enough to work with several clients on social impact funds, most notably leading the development of TPG’s The Rise Fund, which is the largest social impact fund raised to date. The Rise Fund aims to upend the long-held tenet that financial success is antithetical to a social mission. This is an area where Cleary has excelled and developed a “niche” practice, as we have advised on social impact fund formations for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, KKR, Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, NatureVest, Concrete Rose, and the Grameen Foundation, among others. This is an area where I have really found a unique opportunity to help our clients do well while also doing good.
How do you see this practice area evolving in the future?
Cleary has done groundbreaking and innovative work for our clients, most notably in the realm of social impact funds. I believe that this is the future of private equity work—in today’s world, our clients not only want to be successful in their investments, but are increasingly being held accountable by their stakeholders and the general public for the impact their investments have on the world. Our highly successful work on social impact funds (such as TPG’s The Rise Fund and our work with Bill Gates on Breakthrough Energy Ventures) has shown that smart investing can have both financial and social benefits.
What kinds of experience can summer associates gain in this practice area at your firm?
One of the best things about our summer program is that we give summer associates a taste of what first-year-associate work is really like. Our Funds group allows summer associates the opportunity to work directly with lawyers across all levels, including partners. At the same time, our culture of cross-group collaboration means that even if you are staffed on a funds matter, you will be working with attorneys across a variety of practice groups, as most of our matters involve some form of tax, employment, real estate, leveraged finance, or M&A elements.
How important is it to understand your client’s business, and how can junior attorneys gain this insight?
As a funds attorney, as in any practice, it is extremely important to understand your client’s business. However, this does not mean you need to have a finance or investment background prior to law school. My advice for junior associates is to be realistic about what you don’t know, and never be afraid to ask questions to fill in those gaps. At Cleary, we are fortunate enough to have a wealth of resources, including practice development lawyers and attorneys at all levels who are always available and willing to help answer questions both large and small.