The zeros matter

It wasn’t a briefcase full of cash that John Piasta was carrying down the street but it was still very precious cargo and made for a nerve-wracking stroll. “I was delivering a certificate for $750 million worth of notes,” recalls Piasta, who is an associate with Bennett Jones LLP in Calgary. “When you walk through downtown with that in your bag, you hope you don’t slip and fall. And you don’t want to spill coffee on it. That’s your biggest fear.”

Specializing in public financings, mergers, and acquisitions, Piasta says even though most deals are essentially the same in terms of the legal work required, when the sums of money get big, the atmosphere changes. “The zeros matter,” he says. “True, whether it’s a $6.9-billion deal or a $50-million deal, the steps are pretty much the same. It’s the same level of legal intricacy. But it’s natural that when there are nine zeros as opposed to five, there’s a different level of pressure.”

Big deals — and he’s been on several multi-billion dollar ones — also bring special rewards. “They’re exciting,” he says. “When the cheque gets handed over, it’s a rewarding feeling to know you’ve been involved in something fairly large and important. And it’s great to get your name out there in the news. That’s something you don’t see with the smaller deals.”

Of course, working on gargantuan transactions requires early mornings and late nights. “We’re in the service industry,” Piasta notes. “You’re serving your clients on their time restrictions. Whether a phone call comes in at eight in the morning or eight at night or 12 at night, they’re paying for a service. You can’t lose sight of that. That next deal might not come unless you’re attentive to the one that you’re on. Sometimes it takes you into late nights. It’s all part of the game.”

When the deal’s done, the champagne corks go off. And if it’s been an all-nighter, the bubbly gets mixed with orange juice for a morning mimosa. “Everyone walks out with a smile on their face.”

Piasta did his undergrad degree in finance and was always oriented toward business law. But his articling term was a bit of a diversion, clerking at the Alberta Court of Appeal and Court of Queen’s Bench. “When I got the offer, I realized it was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down,” he recalls. “It was a chance to see the inner workings of the system and deal with heavy legal issues. I’m glad I did it.”

Working for judges was a different ball game than doing business law, says Piasta. “From a corporate perspective, clients want to get from A to B. Often they don’t care how you do it, as long as you get there. They trust you to get the job done, and they don’t have time to walk through every step of the transaction. Working at the court, on the other hand, was a lot more about how you get from A to B.”

Having said that, working at the court proved to be valuable training for the work Piasta is doing now. “It was my introduction into advising people,” he explains. “These judges are pillars of the legal community. They didn’t get to where they are without being so. They’re looking for intelligent responses. So you have to bring your A-game every day.”

Keeping pace with judges’ demands was also good preparation for meeting the demands of clients and law firm partners. “Bringing you’re A-game to every question is important. That’s how you get to the next step of being an adviser, as opposed to just a lawyer.” Piasta’s view is that “nothing less than perfection is acceptable. That’s my mantra. It’s just how the legal profession has to be.”

His advice for associates who want to succeed? Simple. “Ask questions,” he says. “There’s no such thing as a stupid question. Your knowledge comes deal by deal. You gain experience. And a lot of junior lawyers don’t ask enough questions.”

The best strategy is to “do your job until you hit the wall and you can’t figure it out on your own. Then ask. You’re not expected to know it all. So don’t be shy. The knowledge and experience of the people above you will guide you to the right place.”

After eight years of practice, he’s still learning all the time. “I don’t know half of what somebody five years ahead of me knows,” he says. “So I ask questions on a daily basis.” And of course, when you’re on a mega-deal, don’t be afraid of the zeros. Just try not to spill coffee on them.

Are you an associate with an interesting story to tell, or do you know someone who does? E-mail the editor, [email protected], and tell us about it.

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