Alumni Spotlight: Youngro Lee (2007-2011; Moscow, New York)

April 7, 2021

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

Youngro Lee, Chief Operating Officer at Republic and Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer at NextSeed in Texas, shared his thoughts below.

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

Everything I learned during my four-plus years at Cleary has truly been the foundation for everything else I’ve been able to achieve since departing Cleary, but ironically, the most valuable lessons were not about substantive legal practice. There are two major lessons I learned at Cleary that I’ll forever be grateful for: (1) how to learn quickly and efficiently, and (2) always strive to understand the big picture and try to predict the future.

The most important technical skill I learned is the ability to learn quickly and efficiently—specifically, when confronted with a brand new issue or problem that I may know very little about at first, I’ve learned to be able to aggressively dive into the weeds, critically analyze the issues to develop appropriate courses of action, and then clearly communicate my ideas to others. For example, I was rarely instructed by my seniors to “find the correct legal answer” or “complete this legal task” (although of course I did my share of busy work as a junior). My seniors often asked and waited for me to present my views on how I would address a particular issue or solve a problem, which forced me to dig deep in order to truly appreciate the underlying issues and the client’s ultimate goals, so that I could develop a thoughtful solution, rather than just trying to come up with a quick response to the immediate question that may not ultimately mean much in the big picture.

Likewise, when I observed certain attorneys and clients in action, it was incredible to actually see them trying to “predict” the future (or potential future) and propose solutions that might be very different than if one was only considering the present conditions. In hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise to be a junior attorney at Cleary during the Great Recession when so many complex new laws (i.e. Dodd-Frank) and unpredictable transactions (i.e. Lehman) were taking place, and nobody actually knew what was going to happen in the future. One had to be supremely confident in his/her experiences and judgment to navigate this period with so much at stake, and to do so while keeping emotions in check and managing complex relationships was inspiring, and I learned so much during this period just by carefully observing others, specifically Michael Gerstanzang, Liza Lenas, Bob Raymond and other senior associates at the time in the private equity funds group. The internal team dynamics the senior leaders tried to infuse was incredible during those difficult times, and something I’ve tried to emulate in my own teams ever since.

These types of big and small interactions over four years really shaped how I approached any problem and communicated with others. I discovered just how much these skills were valuable when I moved to Asia as a fifth-year associate to specialize in the then-growing Asia private equity industry. At the time the PE industry in Asia was starting to grow tremendously, especially in Korea when it had then passed new laws that enabled more inbound PE activities. It was an incredibly difficult decision back then because of my amazing experiences at Cleary, but I also had 100% confidence that I could be successful in a new emerging, uncertain market precisely because of my Cleary training, and because I had formed a view on the incredible opportunity of Asia PE that I was willing to bet my career on. Indeed, I was able to build a very strong and profitable practice in Asia in quick order because of how I approached every project and client relationship, which then directly contributed to my decision to leave legal practice in 2014 to start a FinTech company.

When the JOBS Act was passed in 2012 that would allow non-accredited investors to invest in private companies, at the time almost no one in the industry took it seriously and a lot of people thought I was crazy for leaving my “established” path in BigLaw. However, again leaning on my original Cleary experiences and training, I did my research, critically analyzed the problems and issues with the current private markets (including the PE industry that I had built my own career in), and tried to predict the future. After doing so I felt that this was something that could quite possibly change everything about the private capital markets, and I decided to start NextSeed with the vision to enable private markets to open to everyone, not just for the super-wealthy or well-connected. In reality, I of course have no idea what the future actually holds—but six years into my startup journey, as we continue to make progress on our mission and the rest of the world seems to be catching up, I remain as confident as ever that I’ll be able to navigate the future just fine, whatever it becomes. For this, I feel truly grateful and blessed to have built my foundations at Cleary that will help me for the rest of my life, and I strive to be helpful to others, just as so many at Cleary have helped me over all these years.

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