Alumnus of the Month March 2011

Jaime Mercado ’95

Partner, Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett

Jaime Mercado’s job as head of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett’s new Sao Paulo office represents the biggest bet of his legal career. He won approval to open the office—just the fifth international outpost for the 126-year-old Manhattan-based firm—at the height of the financial crisis. And he knows that the enterprise will succeed only insofar as he and his handpicked team can leverage their political and cultural fluency across a continent that is rapidly emerging as a major new frontier of global corporate law.

Yet for Mr. Mercado ’95, who was born on a yucca farm in the Dominican Republic, the personal stakes might be even higher. In his view, the job represents his greatest opportunity yet to participate in Latin America’s economic transformation—a sea change that he believes promises to raise the standard of living of millions of people who, like him, were born into lives of poverty that once seemed intractable.

Indeed, Mr. Mercado’s mother felt conditions in the Dominican Republican were so unforgiving for her as a single mother that in 1967 she entered the United States illegally, leaving him and his infant sister with her parents. He next saw his mother eight years later when she gained legal status through marriage and was able to bring her children to New York City.

Mr. Mercado was 10 and spoke no English when he arrived at the tenement apartment his mother shared with his new stepfather on the Lower East Side, a rough neighborhood at the time. The family moved to the nearby Baruch Houses, Manhattan’s largest housing project, in 1981at the height of the city’s heroin epidemic. “We’d see people injecting themselves in the elevators,” remembers Mr. Mercado. “But the projects were an improvement on the apartment.”

Mr. Mercado excelled in the city’s Catholic schools and won a scholarship to Columbia University. He thrived academically there, but he was acutely aware that he didn’t have the same professional role models as his Ivy League classmates. When he graduated in 1989 he was still searching for a career direction. He quit a job in finance after a few months. Then a college classmate suggested that he try the law.

He found a paralegal position at the Jacob Fuchsberg Law Firm, a small personal injury practice staffed by several generations of NYU-trained attorneys. Mr. Mercado enjoyed the work, which included opportunities to attend trial proceedings and help with investigations. But he was more deeply struck by the camaraderie among the firm’s lawyers, who seemed to bond over their connection to NYU.

Their sense of NYU Law as an institution on the rise run by a progressive young faculty under the dynamic leadership of Dean John Sexton, now the University’s president, resonated deeply with Mr. Mercado. When he was accepted to the school in 1992, he withdrew his application to his alma mater, Columbia.
Mr. Mercado felt immediately at home at NYU Law, where he quickly developed meaningful relationships with faculty including Dean Sexton and criminal law professor Graham Hughes. Professor Hughes, in particular, felt that Mr. Mercado’s experience growing up in the projects was material to classroom debates about social justice.
As a result, Mr. Mercado often found himself in heated legal discussions with several of his more conservative classmates about immigration, drug laws, affirmative action, and criminal justice. The exchanges spilled out of the classroom and into the bars along West 4th Street, just a few blocks crosstown from the East Village bodega that his mother and stepfather owned.

Mr. Mercado assumed that his increasingly liberal politics would define his career trajectory. “I felt privileged to attend college,” says Mr. Mercado. “And I felt a strong sense that I should go into public interest-related work.” But, as he approached graduation, he also found himself wanting to provide greater financial security for his family. So, in consultation with his informal support network of friends and alumni at the school’s Latin America Law Students Association, he accepted a position with Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett.

The firm’s ambition to stake out a larger Latin American presence offered Mr. Mercado an opportunity to join corporate work with his political interests. “Many of Latin America’s largest economies had recently emerged from oppressive regimes,” says Mr. Mercado, pointing to the end of military dictatorship in Brazil in 1985 and Augusto Pinochet’s rule in Chile in 1990. “These countries were at a crossroads, and this was an opportunity to participate in their development.”

Mr. Mercado joined a small team of associates who were dedicated to developing the firm’s Latin American footprint.  Together they worked on demanding yet stimulating projects as far-reaching as consulting with the Peruvian government on debt management, helping clients like Goldman Sachs expand their business in the region, and advising Brazil’s largest sewage treatment company to modernize its management structure so that it could better respond to the needs of Sao Paolo’s exploding population. 
Mercado made partner in 2005. He increasingly turned his attention to bringing new associates into the firm who were fluent in Spanish and Portuguese and trained in Latin American politics and business. The firm’s reputation as an expert in the region grew rapidly, and by 2007 they were participating in a third of Latin America’s capital market transactions.

By this point, Mr. Mercado’s constant travel from his New Jersey home was straining his marriage, and he worried about providing partnership opportunities for his Latin American team. He and a colleague decided to draft plans to open a Sao Paolo office. They worked for months on the proposal, which Mr. Mercado was sure would pass muster with the firm’s executive committee.

He was less confident about the opinion of his wife, Andrea Everett. So he kept the initiative a secret from her until it was approved in 2008. “Her initial reaction was, ‘We’re not going,’” recalls Mr. Mercado. Part of the issue was that Ms. Everett, at that time an assistant director of career services at Columbia University, had never been to Brazil and didn’t speak Portuguese. More deeply, she and Mr. Mercado were concerned about how she and their two young children would fare as African Americans in Brazil’s race- and class-riven society.

Mr. Mercado ultimately convinced her to move, with the stipulation that they could return to the United States after a year if it didn’t work out. Today, he says the transition has been smoother than expected—though he notes that his wife and children are almost always the only people of African descent in their social circles.

As Mr. Mercado settles into life as a citizen of Sao Paolo, he finds himself thinking about how to create opportunities for children born into poverty. Recently he has reached out to the administration of his daughter’s private school to develop a scholarship for children from the nearby favela, or slum. “I’m trying to figure out,” says Mercado, “how we as American transplants can make a dent in the huge gap here between the very poor and very wealthy.”