Alison Ressler

The Dealmaker

As the head of Sullivan & Cromwell’s California practice, Alison Ressler ’83 continues to make big deals and spur positive impact

By Lila Byock

Fall 2011

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In 1984, Alison Ressler ’83 moved to Los Angeles for what she thought would be a two-year stint. Ressler, who had been an associate in the banking group at Milbank Tweed, was among the first attorneys hired to staff the new Los Angeles office of Sullivan & Cromwell. For the native New Yorker, living on the West Coast initially felt like traveling to “another country.”

Fast forward 27 years, and Ressler now oversees Sullivan & Cromwell’s entire California practice from an office in Century City. Her influence is hardly confined to the West Coast, however. She also co-heads Sullivan & Cromwell’s global private equity group, and she is the first lawyer outside of New York—and the first woman—to sit on the firm’s management committee. Meanwhile, she represents some of the firm’s biggest corporate clients.

“We really are very much one firm,” says the fit, stylish mother of four, relaxing into the head seat at a large conference table. “We think of the U.S. as the left arm, Europe as the right arm, and Asia as the legs. Our lawyers work seamlessly with each other across the globe.” Early in her career, fellow associates admonished her to transfer back to headquarters. At the time, no lawyer had made partner at Sullivan & Cromwell without a tour of duty in the New York office. But Ressler and her family had become happily settled in L.A. She told herself: “I’m going to just keep doing what I’m doing one day at a time, and as long as I keep all the balls in the air there’s no reason to worry about what I ‘have to do.’” Not only did she make partner, she did so a year ahead of schedule. “That was kind of an exclamation point to those who said it couldn’t be done,” she says, smiling. Nowadays, when she recruits young lawyers to the firm, she always tells them that Sullivan & Cromwell is a true meritocracy, a place where your professional accomplishments are “the best testament to your abilities.”

Ressler’s own professional accomplishments frequently make international headlines. In 2010, The American Lawyer named her a “Dealmaker of the Year” for her quarterback role in the sale of Barclays Global Investors to BlackRock, a transaction the magazine called the “deal of a lifetime.” And the roster of other mergers and acquisitions Ressler has helped broker recently is studded with bold-faced names from every industry: Skype, Bank of America, Clear Channel, Hilton, Chiron, Simmons, Sprint, PayPal, Valeant Pharmaceuticals, Biovail, and eBay, just to name a few. “I like the diversity of the deals that I do,” she says. “You can’t be an expert in every business, but you have to get deep enough into it that you understand what the issues are and how to look at things.”

Although Ressler insists that M&A deals comprise “105 percent” of her professional life, her corporate governance expertise is increasingly in demand, and her management responsibilities consume a not-insignificant proportion of her time. “If you need something done, give it to a busy person to do,” she says. Ressler, perhaps unsurprisingly, serves as a trustee at her children’s high school, as well as at Brown University, where she is one of four officers. She also is a member of the Dean’s Council at Columbia Law School. Ressler’s philanthropy includes a scholarship at the Law School and generous support of curricular initiatives in law and business. With her husband, Richard Ressler ’83 (whom she met on her first day at Columbia), she is a minority owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. They invested in the team alongside fellow Law School graduate and Brewers principal owner Mark Attanasio ’82.

Whatever the task at hand, and whatever community Ressler is in, she believes in making her presence felt and having a positive impact. “I try to teach young lawyers not to cut corners,” she says. “If you’re going to do something, make sure you do it well. That’s been my attitude from day one, and it’s, frankly, why I’ve had the success that I’ve had.”

Lila Byock has contributed to The New Yorker, Mother Jones, and other publications.

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Photographed by Rennie Solis