No risks, no rewards: Tom Albrecht, APAC managing partner at Sidley Austin, has gained by taking an adventurous career path
A couple of key decisions can shape a career and therefore help shape a life.
Tom Albrecht’s desk features a framed quotation from a speech US president Theodore Roosevelt delivered over 100 years ago.
In it, Roosevelt lays out his belief that anyone who seeks only to play it safe, and is not prepared to take some risks to try to make things happen, will end up like “those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat”.
“This speech has helped shape my personal career and some of the decisions I’ve made, including the decision to jump into structured finance when it was still untested and its future uncertain,” Albrecht explains.
Cross-border financing expert Albrecht has been with international law firm Sidley Austin since he graduated from law school 36 years ago. Based in Hong Kong since 2010, he is now the firm’s managing partner for the Asia-Pacific region.
It was while he was still at university that Albrecht arrived at the first of several career crossroads.
“I was studying economics and psychology and I asked for some career advice from one of my mentors, an economics professor. He told me he thought I should go to law school – the other options were business school or a doctorate programme in economics. He said, ‘I want you to go to law school but only if you get into the University of Chicago’. This was because Chicago had an economics and law programme. I enjoyed business, finance and the broad concept of economics but once I got into law I knew I was where I should be.”
Albrecht and his wife, who are from Miami, may have wondered whether this was geographically where they should be, as they endured, at that time, the worst three winters in Chicago’s history. Undeterred, the Albrecht family went on to make the ‘Windy City’ its home.
It was natural then for Albrecht to be assigned to finance-related work when he joined Sidley Austin. Then, in only his second year as a finance associate, came a second pivotal moment.
“I was asked if I wanted to assist on this newfangled product, which later became known as securitisation or structured finance. I agreed because the work was intellectually challenging and I felt it had staying power as a product because of its strong macro-economic base.”
The use of structured finance grew significantly in the US over the next few years. In the late 1980s, Albrecht was asked by a client to help them build their securitisation-based business in London.
“I did not intend to become a cross-border lawyer when I started working on securitisation in Chicago. The technology was exported by bankers around the world as a legal and finance construct and they were right when they said it would work in Europe and Asia. So I was soon bouncing around various parts of the world to answer the call. I didn’t move physically, I was just travelling: to London, Tokyo, Singapore and, later, Hong Kong and mainland China.
“How I ended up in Asia was very client-driven and the management role I now have here followed from that. The biggest risk for me was that first step, to focus almost 100 per cent of my time on a newfangled finance product.” I was being pulled away from clients I had in the US to disappear for a week or three to London, Tokyo or Singapore.”
Albrecht is full of praise for the way his immediate bosses at that time not only advised him but also backed him.
“When we started the finance group in Chicago I think I was the fifth or sixth lawyer in that group and it now has 45 to 50 lawyers. The two, kind of, co-heads of the group were really terrific mentors. They told me to do what I thought made the most sense when I got into this area that they didn’t even fully understand. But they had confidence in my assessment and they gave some suggestions.”
Based on his experiences, Albrecht has some particular views on how leaders should act.
These days, the Sidley Austin managing partner has his own ideas about the way leaders should act.
“Give individuals the opportunities to shine and be successful. Give them a sense of ownership of what they’re doing. Give them the confidence to disagree with more senior partners over a question of law or even a question of strategy. You’ve also got to have a personal relationship with them that makes them feel comfortable in expressing themselves.”
He adds that leaders also have to be prepared to do, and can show they’ve already done, what they’re asking their staff to do.
Albrecht and his wife have been together for almost 40 years and their family – three adult daughters with three grandchildren and two more on the way – is a source of great pride to him. But advances in communication technology have made the divide between work and home fuzzier.
“Clients have expectations and they know you’re reachable at virtually any time. The flipside is that technology allows you to deal with client issues when you’re on holiday without having to hop on a plane and leave.”
SETTING THE BAR
Five qualities Tom Albrecht thinks a law leader requires
Knowledge: “You have to be a good lawyer who knows your subject.”
Networking: “You need to be an effective communicator so you can build relationships with the people you lead.”
Nous: “You need the clarity of thought to know where you’re leading.”
Navigation: “You need a strategy to get there and take others with you.”
Resilience: “You have to understand successes are often accompanied by some failures.”
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as No risks, no rewards.