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At Mayer Brown, a High-Profile Lateral Associate?

Feb. 22, 2016, 10:01 PM

It’s not too often you see a law firm announce a lateral associate, but that’s what happened earlier this month when Mayer Brown hired Gretel Echarte Morales, a Cuban native who firm leaders hope will help its U.S. clients improve relations with the island nation.

The firm is so excited about the hire that Toby Moffett, a firm leader in D.C. and former U.S. Congressman, called Morales’ island connections “hot property.”

“Between her roots and her skill set, we think this is a very big commodity and obviously we’d be crazy if we didn’t try to have it benefit our clients,” said Moffett, who co-leads the firm’s interaction with governments.

Morales, 31, is being treated as an especially significant hire at Mayer Brown because the firm is making a bet that her relationships on the island will bolster its nascent Cuba practice, which has so far been staffed by a predominantly white American roster of attorneys.

Although Morales is based in D.C., her family still lives in Cuba, where she was raised and attended the same high school as the grandson of Fidel Castro. She plans to act as a liaison between the law firm and the island.

“I can empathize with the mentality and the priorities of any Cuban sitting across the table from me,” Morales said in an interview.

The hire also comes after a number of large U.S. law firms have jockeyed to land work in Latin America, by opening offices in Miami, partnering with law firms in the Caribbean and throughout Latin America and engaging in wholesale mergers.

Things ramped up even further in early 2015, after President Barack Obama announced he was normalizing relations with the island nation, ending more than five decades of enmity. Three rounds of regulations followed as part of the announcement that eased the U.S. embargo for travel, trade, banking transactions, telecommunications and more. This opened the door for U.S. companies to seek their fortunes on the island, though the embargo, which only Congress can lift, remains in place.

Mayer Brown hatched its Cuba practice in January 2015 — a little late in the game.

“It is a big learning curve because of decades of absence,” said Moffett. “We also advise patience.”

Several large firms have been advising U.S. clients for a decade or more on business opportunities and compliance matters in Cuba. Those firms include Akerman LLP, Holland & Knight LLP and Gray Robinson. Akerman helped bring Airbnb Inc. to the island and established its Cuba practice a decade ago. Holland & Knight and Gray Robinson launched their Cuba practices in the 1990s.

“I encourage prominent, prestigious law firms like Mayer Brown to be involved in Cuba and join the rest of us who have been doing it for a long, long time,” said Peter Quinter, chair of the Customs and International Trade Law Group at Gray Robinson.

As for Morales, whose mother is a nurse and whose father is a cardiologist, she joined Mayer Brown to help clients build relationships on the island. That lets her capitalize on her language skills, pursue her interests in international law and trade and stay connected to Cuba.

In the future, Mayer Brown hopes to secure work linking U.S. clients to the right contacts in Cuba, taking them there and representing them in negotiations with the Cuban government, Moffett said.

“You can’t have a business plan for servicing our clients in Cuba without dealing with the government in a substantive and positive way,” Moffett said.