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Private equity transactions drive this corporate attorney

By Cindy Atoji Keene

Corporate attorney Shayla Harlev doesn’t want to trivialize the merger and acquisition process that she helps facilitate for private equity players, but she compares it to being a personal shopper. “Companies come in different shapes and sizes, and I help them get the clothes or assets they want,” said Harlev, 37, a partner at Weil, Gotshal and Manges in Boston. Harlev has been at the table for consolidations in communications, healthcare, technology and more. In 2007, for example, she helped four private equity clients buy media company Univision Communications, a lengthy year-long process that she said was complicated by regulatory approvals. “You need to be able to help two opposing parties find the middle ground. I call it enlarging the pie. Often one side says ‘A’ and the other side says ‘B’ but they may not be necessarily arguing about the same thing.”

Boston is among the top private equity cities in the country as companies looking to grow or retool continue to look for capital in challenging economic times. Although private equity has gotten a black eye in the rough political primaries, Harlev believes the ruthless image of turnaround firms is unwarranted. “The people I work with don’t come into the deal thinking they’re going to take a company apart or get rid of jobs, but rather the other way around: how can I grow this company and make it better? But obviously not every risk in life works out, so it’s a calculated risk.”

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Q: PE (Private Equity), Venture Capital (VE), Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A) – how can we keep all these terms straight?
A: I didn’t know a lot of these terms myself when I started working in this field; you learn as you go. It’s all common sense, and everything has an equivalent in real life. For example, everyone has bought an asset– a car or a house, for example – if you just blow this up to a bigger scale, this is the world I live in at work.

Q: You were born in Turkey and practiced law in Israel – does that affect your approach to your job?
A: In Israel, lawyers are old-school, or at least they were 10 years ago. Their approach is more conciliatory and they are more informal. When I came to the US, I needed to ramp up the level of documentation and professionalism.

Q: How did you happen to specialize in this type of law?
A: In Israel you have to do one year of internship, and I went to a really small firm that had nothing to do with transactions. I was a bit bored, so I interviewed with different law firms and clicked with one of the managing partners. He was doing a deal in Turkey, and before I knew it, I was on an airplane with him, flying to negotiate a deal. So just a week after I started, I was speaking to the owners of a company, helping them and a prospective buyer transfer ownership.

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Q: You were made partner at Weil while on maternity leave. Law firms are notorious for long hours and being unfriendly to working mothers – how have you created a work-life balance?
A: I have a lot of flexibility with my scheduling. I spend the early morning with my kids, drop them off at preschool, then go to the office. I’ll leave in the evening, have dinner or bathtime with my kids, and once they go back to bed, do some more work. I did go to bed last night at 12:30 a.m. because I had a conference call with lawyers on the West Coast. But on the drive back home, I had the opportunity to call my parents, since Israel is seven hours ahead. So it all works out in the end. Work and family are two different parts of my life that I love. I put boundaries where I need to. This is my day job, and I moonlight at being a parent.

Q: What do you enjoy about your work?
A: Purchasers of a company have huge anticipation, so it’s like delivering a baby. They want this baby to grow and see it become a successful adolescent and then happily go on its way. The other day, for example, when I got on an airplane, I looked at the seatbelt, which was made by a company that makes safety restraint systems. I clicked on the seatbelt, remembering their business plan and knowing that I helped buy this company.

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