Rafael Salaberren Dupont is a founding partner of SyLS in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which is also a member firm of the ILN. In this episode, Lindsay and Rafael discuss the transition between starting a firm and its succession, the true role of a lawyer and their client, and the difference between Latin American law firms and law firms in other regions.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello, and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence podcast, I’m your host Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. And our guest this week is Rafael Salaberren-Dupont of Salaberren y López-Sansón Abogados in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Rafael, welcome. We’re really happy to have you with us this week. Thanks for joining us.
Rafael: Well, thank you very much, Lindsay, and quite impressed with your Spanish. Those are not easy names.
Lindsay: I did take a number of years of Spanish in elementary school, of which I remember very little.
Rafael: Well, but they did work.
Lindsay: Oh, thank you. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about your firm and your practice?
Rafael: Sure. Well, we like to call it SyLS, as opposed to the long name. SyLS was founded in 2009 by Sebastián López-Sansón and by me. We both came from a large law firm in Argentina, and we both had, let’s say, an international background having studied and working in the US for several years. And at a given point, we got excited with the idea of founding a boutique firm that at the same time would be a full-service firm where we could provide our clients with all the legal needs they may have in Argentina, and at the same time build a firm that it was not so big with a very personalized service where the partners in hand type of firms, and basically focused in assisting global clients doing business in Argentina.
So we are not that focused on assisting local clients, but more global clients in doing business in the region where we could serve like sort of a cultural bridge between global clients and the way they like to do business with local complexities of investing in Latin America where, as you know, we have economic instability, complex social situations, and political swings every four years. So these are complex regions, heavily taxed, heavily regulated. So we thought that would be a good idea, and well, after more than 12 years, we definitely proved well, and we are very, very excited with the firm that we built, and it has been very, very successful.
Lindsay: And how about your practice in particular?
Rafael: Well, I specialize in corporate and M&A, so although I’ve probably done almost everything during my almost 30 years in the legal environment, in Argentina, when you begin, you kind of do anything, and you cover all the fields of law at some point. And I think that gives us a very good background now because you know a little bit about everything, and probably a lot about something.
But it’s important to know a bit about everything when advising global clients doing business in this region. I worked for almost four years at a very large US law firm, and you see there how specialized everything is. You have the leveraged lease financing department, for example, and when you go from here to there, you can’t believe how specialized everything is, and that’s awesome.
But when you look for a lawyer in the Latin-American region, I think you need a lawyer who has a more broad look into the legal complexities. Of course, they need to be specialized in one of the practice areas, but having a broad, comprehensive look at the legal complexities, I think, is key. So if you ask me, how do I define myself, I’m an M&A lawyer, probably. But I like to look at myself also as a lawyer who knows a bit of every field in the law also like your general doctor, your general physician.
Lindsay: Right, right. You know how to do the specialties when you need to, but you also know how to diagnose the problem.
Rafael: Yes, because doing business in Argentina, advising in foreign investments, it kind of goes horizontally in all fields of the law. And in M&A too, when you buy a company and you audit the company, you conduct the due diligence of the company and you look into it, you basically look into all the fields of the law. You look at labor law, exchange controls, corporate law, permits, taxes, customs. You have to look into everything, and so having knowledge in all those fields it’s also something that probably comes with practicing M&A.
Lindsay: Absolutely. So what would be something that people misunderstand about your field of work?
Rafael: Well, it depends on where they are from. So if we are talking about a foreign investor, they might not be aware that they need a broad, comprehensive look into the fields of law. And so sometimes you may receive a question where they ask you, “So you’re an M&A lawyer, can you help me with this labor law question, and shall you put me through with somebody else?” And unless it’s something very specific, and of course, I can answer that question, it’s most likely that I can answer that question. And of course, you need to be prudent, and if you receive a question that is complex, then of course we have the right specialist in the firm to deal with that.
Lindsay: Right. So what would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment, and how are you working to overcome that?
Rafael: Well, we are at a… I’m 51 years old, and you don’t want to be relaxed at this stage of your career. It’s a very interesting stage in your career where you’ve achieved, probably more than you thought you would achieve on this road. Then at the same time, we want this firm to continue in the future, even in the far future when the founders are not serving in the firm anymore. And so you need to build the right structures in the firm to continue and have that excitement being reset continuously to try to have other partners follow that excitement and build the structures for SyLS being a very successful law firm 20, 30 years from now.
So probably when we founded the firm, we were not so focused on, “How do we make it successful in 30, 40 years?” we were focused on, “How do we survive next month?” When you go solo, in a way, when you build a new firm, you are focused on, “How am I going to survive next year?” No, no, no. It’s something really wonderful that 12 years later we are focused on, “Which is the right structure to have SyLS being successful 20, 30, 40 years from now?” So that’s a challenge, that’s really a challenge at the current moment,
Lindsay: It’s a wonderful challenge to have, and I think many firms have gone through that sort of succession period, and it’s interesting to look at that first succession as well as then, as you say, you’re considering not just, “How are we successful now?” but, “How are we successful for the next generation and going forward continuously?”
Rafael: And I think this is the right time to think about it because we are still very young all the partners, we are still seen as a very young firm. So this is the right time to plan. I don’t want to be, I don’t know, in my 70s thinking about this for the first time. So it’s probably very good timing, and I’m very optimistic about it.
Lindsay: Absolutely. I think a lot of firms in that position, a lot of the senior partners have waited until that period, and some of them have either made the decision that they aren’t as worried about whether the firm continues. And as you say this is sort of the perfect time because you can ensure not only the continuity of the firm but the continuity for your clients.
Rafael: Right. Exactly. Exactly.
Lindsay: So what would you say then has been the biggest surprise? And normally, I would ask this question, what’s been the biggest surprise you’ve had over the last few months, but I think given the conversation that we’re having, what has been the biggest surprise that you’ve had in developing your own firm?
Rafael: That’s a difficult question because I’m a thinker, so I like, probably, I don’t know if it’s a virtue or it’s something bad that I have, but I always like to overthink things sometimes when I plan, plan A, plan B plan C, plan D. And so I would say that things went according to plan A, and that’s something wonderful. Of course, we had a plan B and a plan C, and then plan D was probably to shake hands and say, “Okay, let’s get together for beer every Friday.”
But things really went according to plan A. We were very lucky also, I think. For a law firm or for any business to be successful, you need an element of luck. Of course, the more you work and the more you think, and the more you plan things properly, probably you’re in a better position to take advantage of the luck. But we were very lucky. So we had the right clients at the right moment, the right project at the right moment, big projects that came at the very beginning, and it really helped us with our self-esteem in the project, and we were very successful.
And it helped us be brave. When you get a big project at the beginning, that helps you be brave. And so we took the right decisions with a very big project already on our desks. So that’s why I think it’s a difficult question because I’m not aware of any big surprises along the road because everything went according to plan A.
Lindsay: Maybe that’s the surprise.
Rafael: And everything started with the partners picking each other, and probably I know I picked the right partner, Sebas, hopefully, thinks the same. And then the next partners that were promoted also. And having the right team, of course, as you know, is key in every business.
Lindsay: Are you still as careful about picking the people that you work with as you bring in additional partners and associates?
Rafael: Yeah, we are very careful with that. Very careful with that. I think that not only do you need to pick the right partner from a business perspective, but also from a personal perspective, which eventually influences the business, but you need to get along well and share the same basic priorities in life. And of course, then they need to be good to the business and help the business grow.
And I know for law firms that have 200, 300, 500 partners, that’s not possible, probably. You need to have processes, and you may be right in some cases with a partner you promote or you pick, and then you may be wrong, especially with laterals, which you don’t know that well. Us being a boutique firm, it gives us the possibility of knowing the people better. So yes, we are very, very careful with the people that we promote and that we may select to join as laterals in the future, yes.
Lindsay: That’s great. What would you say has been the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career?
Rafael: At the beginning, we lawyers probably see ourselves as the main character of the movie. And over the years, I’ve learned that you serve better your clients by acknowledging that you’re not the main character in the business, that you are there to help the main characters to close a deal and to settle a controversy. And sometimes lawyers have a hard time in accepting that they’re not the main characters. Lawyers usually are… well, you probably know that better than anybody would, you deal with so many lawyers. But we lawyers have big egos and we all like to see ourselves as the main character and not accepting that we are in a supporting role in the moment.
And that’s probably the biggest lesson that I’ve learned over the years and I happily accepted. And I think that you provide a better service by accepting it. As I reach this age, probably liking my profession more than I liked it when I considered myself a main character.
Lindsay: That’s an important lesson. And I think that probably that’s true for any service profession. Your point about being in a supporting role as opposed to the main character, if you can accept that that’s your role, I think you’ll go really far.
Rafael: Yeah, but it definitely goes against lawyers’ egos, and so it’s… But I invite other lawyers in the firm to think about it and to accept it because I think it’s really good, not only for the clients but also for us lawyers to know what we are being asked to do.
Lindsay: Absolutely. And then switching gears a little bit, can you tell us about the biggest mentor that you’ve had during your career?
Rafael: I had several ones, and I have very good memories of all of them. I started my career in a completely different field and worked as a clerk in the criminal courts of justice while I was studying. And so, one of the judges there, I had a really good relationship with him, a really good relationship with him. Then when I started at the big law firm in which I worked before, I probably had the same boss for 12 years. And I learned a lot about him. He was always patient with me. He dealt with a Rafa who was 23 years old and was probably having his focus was not only on working but also on what happens after he left the office. And that’s probably everybody at that age. And so he patiently helped me walk through those beautiful years.
And then when I worked in the US, I also had both in the New York office and in the Miami office of the law firm in which I worked, I had really, really good mentors there too. So I was very fortunate with the people that… and they were all very different, completely different. And so I had the opportunity of picking the right skills from each of them.
Lindsay: How important do you think having a good mentor is to the course of someone’s career?
Rafael: I think it’s key. I think it’s very, very important. It makes you. It makes your career a lot easier or having the wrong mentor can make your career a nightmare. So you can have a very good mentor, you can have no mentor, or you can have a boss who became a nightmare. And I’m in the first group, fortunately, definitely.
Lindsay: Have there been any clients who have impacted or changed the course of your career?
Rafael: No. No, I don’t think so. No. No, no, no. I started, as you know, in a large Argentine law firm, and at a given point, I was invited to work in the US. That was a big moment. That was really a big moment going from working in a local environment to working probably at one of the largest law firms in the world, and so it was a big, big change. It gave me the opportunity to put probably two more zeros in every transaction that I was working in, all deals were super big and complex.
And then I went back to the law firm, and then we decided to found this boutique. So those things, those changes from big local law firm, very big global law firm, small local law firm, those were all really interesting moves. The good thing is that they were all moves that I wanted, and so I was very lucky from that viewpoint.
Lindsay: And then switching gears, what does being a part of the ILN mean to you?
Rafael: Well, it was a nice surprise, I must say. And we were quite reluctant of joining a group, and I wouldn’t say an alliance, but a group. I don’t know how you learn network, using part of the name. We never thought we would, but one of the firms, KLA, actually in Brazil, strongly suggested that we took the chance. At the very beginning, you look at it as an extra cost, Lindsay. You say, “Okay, let’s add a figure in our P&L, in the L column, and I don’t know what I’m going to add in the P column.” So that’s the first thing you look at.
But we respect KLA a lot, and if they say this might be a good opportunity, let’s take a chance. And well, several years have passed, and it has been a nice surprise, we are happy with the ILN, and we like to participate as much as we can.
Lindsay: I’m glad to hear it. That’s really good. So to close, I always like to ask people what is something that they are really enjoying right now. Outside of work, outside of everything that’s happening in the world, what is something that you’re really enjoying?
Rafael: Well, in my case, my family. I’m really enjoying my family. The kids are still paying attention to me, I don’t know for how long, I don’t know if it’s going to last. But with Ines, my wife, we have three kids and they’re 22, 18, and 15, and we are really, really enjoying them because they’re grown-up people, probably in many aspects, they’re more mature than I am. And it’s a blessing, this time is really a blessing. So that’s probably what I’m enjoying the most.
I do lots of other things. As you know, I’m a horse fan, horse races, and I’ve got lots of friends, and I like to enjoy life. And also, we have a family farming business, so I love going to the farm. So I really am very fortunate, but the family’s probably what I’m currently enjoying the most.
Lindsay: That’s wonderful. When I ask that question, I never know what answer I’m going to get, but more often than not the number one thing that most people say is their family, and it’s lovely to hear that so often.
Rafael: Well, that’s good that everybody or the majority of the ILN lawyers think like that.
Rafael: That’s why we get along well, probably.
Lindsay: It’s true. That is true, absolutely. It’s like, we are one big family, and the ILN members love their families, so.
Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. And thank you to all of our listeners, we will be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you so much.