For Andrianne S. Payson '00, a partner in DLA Piper's Projects and Infrastructure Group, the blackout that struck the Northeast in 2003 was a perfect illustration of why her work in the energy sector is valuable. "I think that's when it became pretty obvious to most Americans that without electricity, literally everything comes to a standstill," she says.
Payson's passion for advising clients in the power sector is now matched with her desire to help her alma mater prepare the next generation of "lawyers in the best sense." She is spearheading the creation of a new scholarship fund for the Cornell Black Lawyers Alumni Network (CBLAN), and is throwing herself into events aimed at helping students, particularly women and minorities, get the most out of their Cornell Law School experience.
"For a long time I did not view myself as someone that others would necessarily look up to. I've always thought that I should focus and do my best work, and if someone asked for my advice, I'm more than willing to share it," says Payson. "But over the years, particularly after I made partner, I realized that because there are so few black women partners in major law firms and even fewer who practice in corporate departments, I have an obligation to mentor and support the younger members of my profession, particularly those at Cornell."
At DLA Piper, and before that working at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae (later Dewey & LeBoeuf), Payson has spent the last decade and a half doing mergers and acquisitions and project finance work for utility companies, independent power producers, and private equity firms that buy and sell energy assets. Besides working in the United States, she frequently travels to sub- Saharan Africa, where she advises clients, including utility companies in Ghana and Mozambique seeking to develop and build utility infrastructure. "I have seen first hand how electricity fuels the growth of an economy, particularly economies in emerging markets," she says. "It makes a significant impact."
Payson says her interest in the energy sector was inevitable since she was born and raised in Trinidad, where petroleum extraction and now LNG exports make up a large portion of the local economy. "I always heard oil and gas issues being discussed at home, in school, and as part of the nightly TV news. Everyone was constantly aware of how much the slightest change in the price of oil could adversely impact our national budget," she says. "It is not surprising that I ended up working in the energy space."
After moving to the United States for her undergraduate degree and becoming a certified public accountant, Payson worked for a few years at PricewaterhouseCoopers auditing utility companies. She was thinking of going to business school, but a regulatory lawyer at one of her utility clients convinced her that with the industry facing all sorts of legislative challenges stemming from deregulation, law school would serve her better. Plus, Payson says, "I think he figured out that my personality was probably better suited for the practice of law than an M.B.A. career" At Cornell, Payson says she received a solid grounding in transactional law, as well as the bonus of meeting her husband, Anderson R. Livingston, M.B.A. '99.M
After Payson graduated, she would occasionally give advice to Cornell law students that professors had pointed her way, and returned to Ithaca to participate in the annual "Minorities and Law" coference. However, she admits, "for quite some time I really wasn't that active." That all changed in 2013, when E. Eric Elmore '89 and Laura Wilkinson, J.D. '85/M.B.A. '86 (and member of Cornell University's Board of Trustees) decided that it was long overdue for African American lawyers educated at Cornell to have an alumni network of their own. Payson attended a CBLAN interest session in Washington, D.C., and was so impressed by Eric and Laura's commitment to building the network that she agreed to hold a similar interest session at her firm in New York City. Fast-forward two years, and Payson is an active member of CBLAN's executive board and chairs the development committee.
One of CBLAN's most exciting initiatives has been the endowment of a scholarship to honor George Washington Fields, an ex-slave who in 1890 became the first black student to graduate from Cornell Law School. When Payson spoke to the Forum at the end of February, she said that CBLAN had raised more than 90 percent of its initial fund-raising goal of $100,000. She anticipates that the fund will increase well beyond its initial goal once more alums become aware of CBLAN's efforts to support the Law School in increasing aid to incoming law students.
Peter Cronin, associate dean for alumni affairs and development, praises Payson's effective work on the G. W. Fields Scholarship Fund. "We are very excited about the opportunities that CBLAN presents for the Law School, its alumni and its students, not only for the interaction between the Law School's students and its black alumni but also between our students and the black alumni of Cornell's undergraduate colleges who have pursued legal education and who can serve as valuable mentors and role models for our students," he adds. "We see this as a model that can be adopted by groups from underrepresented constituencies."
For the past two years, Payson has also served as an instructor-judge at the Law School's Transactional Lawyering Competition. "It's great to see how much experience the students get early on in their law school careers in terms of thinking through corporate issues," she says, and adds that she values the chance to connect both with students and other alumni judging the competition. Professor Charles Whitehead, the competition's founder, says that lawyers like Payson, "who are right smack in the middle of their practice," are ideal to judge the competition. "First and foremost, I'm looking for really good transactional people," Whitehead says. "If I can find a woman, and a woman of color, well then, even better, because we have students who are women and women of color in the competition, and having someone who can speak to the practice from that perspective . . . makes the competition just that much more valuable."
Payson also traveled to Ithaca in March 2014 to participate in "Raising the Bar: Careers & Experiences of CLS Alumnae," an event hosted by the Women's Law Coalition to allow female Law School graduates to share their experiences. Payson says she welcomed the opportunity to answer tough questions. "When you're coming in the door and you're a young lawyer, if you want to create your own brand . . . and want to be perceived as a go-to person, someone who's dependable, reliable, and does excellent work, then it may mean you have to work harder and smarter than your peers," she told students. "And so when people ask me, 'Did you have work-life balance?' I just tell them flat out, 'I really didn't in my early years.' But that was my own call, that was the decision I made for my career."
Payson is similarly blunt with her advice for current Law School students. "Law school is an expensive investment, but one worth making if you want to practice law or understand how you can apply legal training to pursue other opportunities," she says. "You have to be the master of your own fate. Take charge of your career. Seek out mentors and leverage those relationships."
And one more thing: "When you graduate, don't wait too long to get involved with Cornell."