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Leading Questions: Baker McKenzie’s Debra Dandeneau

Dec. 4, 2020, 10:31 AM

Lawyers are great at asking questions, but how are they at answering them? Bloomberg Law is talking with lawyers and other legal industry players at the top of their fields to find out what makes them tick, what challenges they face, and how they do what they do.

Baker McKenzie global restructuring leader Debra Dandeneau says one of her primary challenges is convincing clients that bankruptcy lawyers are not “undertakers,” but problem solvers and strategists who want to help.

New York-based Dandeneau, a partner and chair of Baker’s global restructuring and insolvency group, focuses on business reorganizations, debtor and creditor rights, and supply chains.

Bankruptcy and restructuring have taken on renewed importance during the coronavirus pandemic, which has led to a surge in demand for Big Law attorneys with relevant experience.

Dandeneau has spent her 35-year legal career at two Big Law firms: Baker McKenzie and Weil Gotshal & Manges. She left Weil a month shy of a 30-year tenure and joined Baker McKenzie in July of 2016.

Bloomberg Law spoke to Dandeneau about the challenges facing middle market companies, the economic stress the pandemic has put on healthcare companies, and how a “can do” attitude is the best approach for lawyers at any stage of their careers.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Bloomberg Law: What specific strategies are you using to attract and retain clients? What’s the biggest challenge?

Debra Dandeneau: We have found that one of the best ways to attract clients for our restructuring and insolvency group is to work with our partners across the world to help them identify the early warning signs of distress among their client base, and to bring us in to provide advice early in the process. It is always a challenge to convince people that we are not undertakers, but instead are focused on problem solving, building resilience, and helping clients develop and navigate strategies.

BL: What are some of the differences between bankruptcies occurring because of the pandemic, and the ones that occurred during the Great Recession?

DD: The pandemic clearly was something that we did not see coming, whereas we had warning signs leading into the 2007-2009 recession. In 2007-2009, we saw large, systemic businesses at risk, and the failure of the government to step in and provide support to those large businesses, with Lehman Brothers being the prime example. The government learned that lesson with Lehman Brothers, and then worked to provide support to large, systemic institutions that helped save the smaller companies that would have felt the trickle-down effect upon the failure of those institutions. If the Obama administration had not saved GM and Chrysler, for example, that could have caused a global shutdown of the automotive industry.

Now, it feels that the real crisis is not coming from the larger businesses, many of which continue to receive substantial financial support, but from the middle market companies that are not backed by private equity sponsors, are too small for debt investors looking to trade into with an eye towards supporting and owning, and otherwise have limited access to capital. What I think we are seeing are companies that provide the support for these larger organizations crumbling. So we are having more of a trickle-up effect as the companies that provide the base support for larger organizations start to fail because they fall within the area of being too big for Paycheck Protection Program loans (or the PPP loans being insufficient) but too small to find access to capital sources.

Debra Dandeneau
Courtesy of Baker McKenzie

BL: Clearly, the travel and hospitality industries have been hard hit by the pandemic, but has there been an industry that has seen an uptick in bankruptcies that has surprised you?

DD: The one that might be counterintuitive is healthcare. We forget that the pandemic has put financial stress on providers as people have foregone elective surgeries. Hospitals have had to deal with the influx of Covid-19 patients, for which they were not prepared and are not necessarily getting support. And we are seeing the economic effect on healthcare providers of having so many at-risk people who are underinsured.

BL: What’s your best war story from your legal career?

DD: If I had to choose a war story it likely would come from one of the pro bono matters I handled. When New York City terminated its Advantage rental subsidy program, I worked closely with Legal Aid to bring a class action challenging the termination. As a result of that action, we helped 10,000 of the most at-risk members of New York City’s community from becoming homeless again.

BL: Does the firm have specific diversity targets, is the firm meeting those targets, and what does it still need to do to improve diversity?

DD: In 2019, Baker McKenzie adopted trailblazing 40-40-20 global gender targets—40% women, 40% men and 20% flexible, meaning men, women or non-binary individuals—for its partners, senior business professionals and firm committees. Significantly, the targets transform aspirational goals into measurable outcomes; provide mechanisms to ensure accountability; and are inclusive of non-binary individuals. Two integral programs that support our gender targets are a 12-month program designed to support women partners in progressing to senior leadership roles, and a year-long mentorship program for high-potential, mid-to-senior associate women in our EMEA region.

Not only did the firm set gender targets in 2019, but also racial and ethnic minority targets in the U.S. and Canada to comprise 15% of equity partners, 20% of non-equity partners, and 15% of leadership by 2025. In addition, our London office launched targets of 14% Black, Asian and minority ethnic representation across every level in the office.

BL: I’m a new associate, fresh out of law school, what should I do to stand out and advance my career in the best way possible?

DD: Take on as many new and different opportunities as you can and don’t be afraid of going outside your comfort zone in taking on new matters. Even now, I approach every different challenge as an opportunity to make me a better and more knowledgeable lawyer. Recognize that it is okay to be a little scared when you take on a new matter but approach each new matter with a “can do” attitude.

To contact the reporter on this story: Mary Ellen Egan in New York at maryellenegan1@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Opfer at copfer@bloomberglaw.com;
John Hughes at jhughes@bloombergindustry.com; Rebekah Mintzer at rmintzer@bloombergindustry.com

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