Despite taking what could be considered an unusual path to law school, Jonathon Soler
has now achieved considerable professional success and satisfaction as a partner in the private equity practice at Weil, Gotshal & Manges LLP
, one of the largest and most prestigious international law firms.
While the Canadian-born Soler was attending Queen's University as a business major in the early 1990s, his roommate had already decided on a career in law and was preparing for the LSAT. His roommate suggested to Soler that he take the LSAT as well, to keep his options open. After successfully completing the LSAT, Soler began looking into law school options and found that this would allow him the opportunity to realize a dream he'd always had of attending an Ivy League school.
"I ended up going to Columbia, which was a great experience," says Soler. "I chose law as much for the life-broadening experience of coming to New York and being surrounded by some really smart, intelligent people."
In fact, Soler says that even with the law degree, he didn't necessarily think he would be a long-term lawyer. "If you had asked me seven or eight years ago when I was starting at Weil, 'Do you think you're still going to be here in 2009?' I probably would have said no, but not because there was anything I disliked about Weil. I just always assumed I would do something else at some point," Soler explains. "Much to my surprise and delight I really like what I do and have continued to pursue it, so it's worked out."
Soler first came to Weil Gotshal as a summer associate in 1997, then after graduation from Columbia University, he began working in the firm's bankruptcy and restructuring practice. "What made me ultimately move out of that as the opportunity arose, was that, while I enjoyed the transactional aspects of that practice, I knew I didn't have a litigator's mind set ," says Soler. In early 2000, he joined the firm's private equity practice. "I think I have more of a collaborative mind set. Not that there can't be moments in transactional practice where your process is adversarial, but I like the idea of working together to achieve a common goal."
The collaborative and client service elements of working in private equity continue to be what Soler draws professional and personal satisfaction from. "The rewarding part comes back to the client," Soler says. "I like being the person that someone calls when they have a difficult problem, and knowing that I'm the person whose advice they trust to help them work through their issues. A lot of what I do for my clients is helping them make decisions that are critical to their businesses, and that's a role I value. I think that's what's kept me in the profession. I recognize my role, and I enjoy it."
Early Experience Highlights Positives of Working in Private Equity
Soler recalls one of his early experiences with fund closings at Weil Gotshal as a prime example of the aspects of working in private equity that are appealing to him. The clients were a couple of former colleagues and friends who had worked together in the past but were coming together to form a new business.
"It was my first real experience of starting from scratch, working with a client to help get their business organized, helping them put together the legal framework of their business as they went out to investors, and over what was really a two-year period, negotiate to get to that closing," Soler says. "And that closing, the critical signing of the documents, was the make or break moment for that client. If we can't get them there, their business doesn't launch, and everything they've just devoted the last two or three years of their life is not realized."
After almost two years, Soler and the clients sent final papers to one large investor whose contribution was key to having enough money to close the deal.
"Any transactional lawyer will tell you that the exciting part is bringing the transaction to a close," Soler says. "There's an adrenaline rush from, in effect, solving the problem and bringing sides together and completing the deal."
In this case, the adrenaline had to keep pumping as they spent almost three full days waiting for the papers to finally clear through the bureaucratic red tape of the investor.
"It was one of those exhilarating but also defining moments, because you realize what you're doing isn't some theoretical, hypothetical exercise of drafting a contract," Soler says. "This was a defining moment for this client's business, and that client still happens to be one of my most significant clients that I have at the firm."
Working in private equity has its unique challenges as well. "What makes what we do a little different than a lot of other commercial transactions is that almost everything I do by nature is a multiparty negotiation," Soler explains. "Trying to navigate a process and keep things moving efficiently while appeasing people and trying to reach comfortable arrangements with all parties that satisfies everyone's needs is not always easy."
Soler finds a silver lining in this challenge, though. "It's challenging in the sense that it's not necessarily just a binary game of you want X, I want Y, so let's meet in the middle," he says. "It's usually not that simple. But frankly the fact that it's not that simple is why I enjoy it."
Former Summer Associate Stays Involved in Firm's Program
The client service nature of private equity is also what motivated Soler to become actively involved with the recruiting and administration of the firm's summer associate program.
"We're in a human business. We're in a service business. In order to provide our clients with the best service that we can, we need to have the best people," explains Soler. He says the best candidates are not simply the smartest ones or the ones with the best grades, but rather the ones that have the right personality to fit into the firm's culture.
"I think the most important thing that a person brings to the practice is a passion, is the desire to be good, to be successful, to want to be that service provider," he says. When comparing those who do a good job versus those who do a great job, Soler says the great ones do more than just the task at hand, and "they remember that they're in a client service business, and they're focused on the human aspect of dealing with a client and how to satisfy a client's need within the framework that the law provides."
Soler believes the idea of bringing passion to your work extends beyond working in private equity, and is an important aspect to bring to the table no matter which area of expertise you decide to follow, especially in this challenging economy where some law students and young lawyers may have difficulty finding traditional employment.
"Those students or young lawyers who are able to present themselves well and demonstrate that they have shown a passion for something or built a skill set in a certain area, something that distinguishes themselves, makes them different, are often the ones that stand out," Soler says. "Do something that you're passionate about, that you're interested in, work harder to be successful at it, and I think more often than not it will lead you to a good place in the end."