Alumni Spotlight: Michael Strauss (2001-2006; London, Paris, Washington, D.C.)

March 10, 2021

To celebrate Cleary Gottlieb’s 75th anniversary, alumni around the globe are taking time to reflect on their experiences at the firm.

Michael Strauss, General Counsel at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, shared his thoughts below.

What lessons did you learn at Cleary that prepared you for your future career?

It may be trite, but I learned four things at Cleary that prepared me well: (i) the best work product comes from the application of the highest standards; (ii) excellence can be achieved in a less hierarchical and less formal organization; (iii) a collaborative approach to legal work is at least as effective as individualized modes of legal work; and (iv) if something is really important, it deserves to be written in a numbered list. In all seriousness, I suspect that I learned the most important of these lessons by failing – the basis of most good learning – more often than not to meet these standards while working at Cleary.

In the end, the way Cleary best prepared me for my career, though, is through the people I worked with and befriended there. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have worked for several high-performing organizations post-Cleary, from the international financial institutions to the U.S. Treasury, to another law firm with echoes of Cleary’s ethos and excellence. A plurality of those people I’ve identified most closely with in my life and my career – who continue to push me intellectually and in other ways – are friends I made through Cleary. This is a testament above all to Norma Cirincione and Georgia Emery Gray for their decades of recruitment leadership.

What Cleary person and/or experience had a lasting impact on you personally?

Two experiences come to mind. The first was a small cross-border U.S./UK M&A healthcare transaction I worked on in the London office with Glen Scarcliffe and Will Morrow.  For a very small deal, it required contributions from about every possible area of specialization throughout the firm, so I connected with a wide range of Cleary lawyers across various offices. I was a very junior associate and I’m sure I had little idea what I was doing. Yet Glen and Will offered me a lot of leeway, much responsibility, and just the right amount of gentle guidance. It was a clinic in how to manage a junior lawyer: with trust enough not to micromanage the work, but with the investment of the necessary time to teach and support. I reference their management approach frequently in my current work as the standard to meet.

The second was an unexpected chance I had to speak with the late André Newberg, who was Of Counsel in London when I arrived there. We only spoke briefly but I learned from him about the role he played as the first and founding General Counsel of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Just under two decades later, I feel very privileged to be serving as the fifth General Counsel there.

Why do you participate in the alumni network, and what would you say to someone who is considering getting involved?

My reason is not revolutionary – I suspect it’s the same for most others: I participate for the connection to a cohort of talented, brilliant and interesting people. As I’ve mentioned in a different response, I have found the Cleary network to be especially engaging and stimulating. Once again, I think credit for this goes to two people who have so recently left the firm: Norma Cirincione and Georgia Emery Gray, who so shaped the firm’s character in the generations of lawyers they recruited.

That said, for about 10 years after leaving the firm in 2006, I had failed to grasp the purpose or value of alumni events and reunions. I had only joined occasionally for the Alumni CLE event each October in New York. Then in 2018 Norma led the first Asian alumni reunion in Hong Kong. While I was not an alumnus of an Asian office, I attended because I was living in Hong Kong. I realized what I had been missing – it was an incredible event! Now that I’m based in London, when the pandemic ends and reunions resume, I will be sure not to miss the next European alumni reunion.

To learn more about Cleary’s global alumni network, click here.