April 3, 2012 5:05 PM

Shearman Senior Partner Weerasinghe Latest Firm Leader to Leave for Finance Industry Post

Posted by Brian Baxter

Rohan Weerasinghe, the senior partner of Shearman Sterling in New York, will leave the firm on June 1 to become Citigroup’s new general counsel, according to sibling publication Corporate Counsel—some seven years after his predecessor moved to Morgan Stanley and nearly a decade after another top Shearman partner left for an upper-management role at Citi.

“I am excited to have the opportunity to go from one leading global organization to another,” the 61-year-old Weerasinghe said in a statement announcing his move in-house. “I am looking forward to this new professional challenge—leading Citi’s world-class legal organization as it continues to provide important guidance to the company.”

Rohan Weerasinghe

By leaving Shearman, Weerasinghe (right)—who boasts 35 years of experience handling corporate and securities matters and was elected as the firm’s senior partner in 2005—is a rarity: the leader of a large international firm ready to trade that post to manage legal operations for one of the world’s largest companies.

“This is wonderful news for Rohan, and we are all very excited for him and wish him the best in this new professional challenge,” said Shearman employee benefits practice head and policy committee member Linda Rappaport in a statement to The Am Law Daily. “On a personal level, it is hard for so many of us, since we have all worked together at the firm for so long, but we know he will be close by.”

As it happens, Shearman has some experience managing such transitions.

Weerasinghe’s predecessor in the senior partner role, David Heleniak, left the firm in May 2005 after 31 years to become vice-chairman of Morgan Stanley, where he headed the company’s investment banking business while advising on key strategic issues. Heleniak was elected senior partner at Shearman in 2001.

Preceding Heleniak in that role was Stephen Volk, the firm’s senior partner beginning 1991. Volk left Shearman in 2001 to become vice-chairman and a member of the executive board at Credit Suisse First Boston. He later rose to the position of chairman, before leaving CSFB in 2004 to become a vice-chairman at Citi. In his current role at the banking giant, Volk focuses on senior management matters and institutional clients.

The Sri Lanka–born Weerasinghe—who joined Shearman in 1977, made partner in 1985, and became the first nonwhite head of a major New York firm after succeeding Heleniak in 2005—will begin reporting in June to India-born Vikram Pandit, who has been Citi’s CEO since late 2007.

Citi has been a Shearman client for about 130 years, says Ron Brandsdorfer, a spokesman for the 834-lawyer firm. The firm has handled transactions for predecessor companies to Citi dating back to the late 1800s, including a landmark $70 billion merger with Travelers Group in 1998 that created Citigroup in its current configuration. Recent matters on which Shearman has advised Citi include the latter’s exit from the music business through its $4.1 billion sale of EMI Group last year.

Rappaport told The Am Law Daily that Shearman’s partnership agreement contains a “clearly defined special election process” designed to identify potential candidates within the firm to succeed an outgoing senior partner.

“Under Rohan’s leadership over the past seven years, we have placed considerable emphasis on developing a new generation of firm leaders,” Rappaport said. “We feel very confident that we will identify and elect a new senior partner with the skill set we need to lead us in this legal and business environment.”

Weerasinghe will continue to oversee Shearman’s day-to-day affairs until he departs for Citi in June.

Meanwhile, Brandsdorfer says, Shearman’s global policy committee will contact all of the firm’s 212 partners worldwide over the next week to place the name of a candidate for senior partner before the full partnership as part of the special election process. Shearman hopes to have a new senior partner in place by the time it holds its annual partners’ meeting in Miami from May 3 through May 5 so that person can work with Weerasinghe on the leadership transition, Brandsdorfer says.

Shearman has struggled in recent years to match the earning prowess of New York’s top firms. Its gross revenue fell every year between 2007—when they rose 9.4 percent to $921 million, according to our previous reports—and 2010, a tough stretch for many firms battling the effects of the global economic downturn.

In 2008 Shearman saw its gross revenue slip 5 percent to $876 million, while profits per partner dropped 9.6 percent to about $1.7 million. In 2009 profits per partner rebounded 4.2 percent to $1.74 million, but gross revenue declined another 8.6 percent to $801 million. By 2010 revenue and partner profits had declined another 8 percent to $737 million and $1.56 million, respectively.

Shearman did see its gross revenue increase slightly last year, to $750 million, while the firm’s profits per partner held steady at $1.56 million, according to a preliminary report on the firm’s financial performance by The Am Law Daily. Weerasinghe told us in February that Shearman had suffered a slight decrease in transactional work as a result of the Greek debt crisis.

Rappaport took time Tuesday to praise Weerasinghe for his accomplishments and leadership at Shearman during turbulent times. The firm, under Weerasinghe, shook up its senior management structure in 2008. Shearman, which has always had a strong presence abroad, specifically in Germany and the United Kingdom, also expanded internationally by acquiring a Hong Kong law practice from O’Melveny Myers in 2010.

“[Rohan] led us through the most challenging period in the history of the legal industry following the financial crisis in 2008,” Rappaport said in her statement to The Am Law Daily. “I also think we are a better firm today, more cohesive globally than ever before. I think this bodes very well for our future and will provide our senior partner-elect with a strong foundation.”

Corporate Counsel has more on the in-house ramifications of the move at Citi, whose current general counsel Michael Helfer, a former partner at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr, will be promoted to vice-chairman of the New York–based financial services giant. (In 2009 Citi stayed in-house by promoting Kevin Thurm to the position of deputy general counsel.)

Helfer did not appear on Corporate Counsel‘s annual GC Compensation Survey last year. An employment agreement between Helfer and Citi at the time of his hire in 2003 states that at the time he was in line to receive a $400,000 salary along with additional cash bonuses and stock options pointing to a multimillion dollar compensation package.

Additional reporting by Michael Goldhaber.

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