Career Advice Successful High flyers’ story

Legal counsel advises major clients on consequential decisions

Earlier this year, Neil Torpey returned to Hong Kong for a second tour of duty with leading international law firm Paul Hastings, and he is more than happy to be back in town.

During his first spell, between 2002 and 2013, he got the ball rolling after the acquisition of a local firm and went on to lead a team advising major clients on everything from leveraged buyouts, M&As and securities offerings to private equity investments and venture capital transactions.

There were numerous “first of its kind” deals in the region, involving banks, real estate companies and investment houses. And, this time around, as chair of the Hong Kong office, the brief is to keep delivering more of the same in order to expand the firm’s presence in Asia and see it move from its current 18th place towards the top of the profession’s international league table.

“My own practice area has pretty much always been in private equity and M&As,” Torpey says. “I represent clients all the time in these kinds of deals, typically making acquisitions of companies and assets and working on related financing and fund formation. The management aspect of what I do involves strategy across the region and looking at the mix of our practice.”

“The firm is very aggressive; we never wait for the phone to ring. We are all tasked with developing business, so a typical partner is focused on delivering outstanding client service, but also has that entrepreneurial streak.”

As the youngest of three kids, Torpey grew up in a small town outside Philadelphia. His mother worked as a journalist for various outlets, including Red Cross publications, before becoming a full-time homemaker. And his father was a trust and estate lawyer who practised for a few years before spending most of his career running trust departments for a few large banks.

Following the recommendation of a hometown friend, Torpey opted for Colgate University in upstate New York and did a four-year double major in political science and art history. He combined sports and study, but a semester programme during his third year, which took him to Washington DC in January 1981, was to prove pivotal for his future career.

It provided exposure to a different world, including a group meeting with Supreme Court Justice Byron White, time at the Federal Reserve, and an internship with Senator Bill Bradley, former basketball star and future presidential candidate.

“He was the sort of person you could look up to as a real hero with an impeccable personal and professional record,” Torpey says. “He was a member of the Senate Energy Committee, and I was asked to work on a bill he introduced in Congress to do with the expansion of coal ports in the US. That’s what got my interest in the law going.”

Back at college, he duly took the required tests and started applying to law schools. Still, though, he was wrestling with thoughts of becoming a teacher or going into investment banking. At one point, post-graduation in 1982, he even tried his luck by donning his only suit and heading to Wall Street to knock on doors, talk his way into offices, and hand out resumes.

The approach worked, with one major bank actually offering a role as a bond trader. But they also advised him to complete law school first and then come back if still interested. As things turned out, after three years at Cornell Law School, Torpey did go to New York, but to join Mudge Rose, an old-style Wall Street law firm, a path which ultimately led to working on deals at the heart of the financial world.

“It was a matter of following a gut instinct about where I would fit in and gain the experience to get where I wanted to go,” he says.

By then, his influential hometown friend had gone on to found a private equity business, which effectively put that whole sector on the radar and opened up new possibilities.

“I became interested in doing the legal side of that kind of work, and have been doing it ever since.”

After a few years of practice, one of the partners Torpey knew best moved to Paul Hastings and, as often happens, invited him to come along. The firm had its roots in California and was just getting started on the east coast, but it was quickly making a name for itself.

“It looked to have tons of potential, and I found it very inspiring that they had ambitions to become a national law firm,” he says. “We went along that path and, as the world began to globalise, opened an office in London towards the end of the 1990s and, in 2002, in Hong Kong.”

Leaving late one night, Torpey had asked the senior partner in passing about the plans for Hong Kong. A swift 30 minutes later, he was heading home to ask his wife about an initial two-year posting — and the whole family was soon on its way.

“Like many people, I found the city stimulating and enjoyed the process of building the business,” he says. “We stayed until 2013, which was an inflection point as my three kids were preparing to go to university. It is good to return, though, because I still think Asia is the most interesting region, with its dynamic economies and the opportunity to build relations with companies from China that will continue to emerge on the world stage.”

While back in New York, Torpey, who is a keen collector of contemporary Chinese art, was involved in the development of a new tech-focused Cornell campus on Roosevelt Island, and was slated to teach a full-year course on doing business in China.

“I was saved by the bell coming back here,” he says. “I would have been relying on a lot of guest speakers to help out.”