International Road Warrior

Rachel Robbins, lead lawyer for the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, always knows where her passport is

Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® - 2009 magazine

By Timothy Harper on June 10, 2009


In 1966, when Rachel F. Robbins was 16, she wrote a letter to herself, describing her hopes and her dreams. She sealed the letter in an envelope, vowing not to open it until her 30th birthday. She wanted to remind herself, as an adult, of what she had been like as a teenager, and to capture that sense of wonder and possibility.

When Robbins dug out the letter in 1980—yes, she waited until her 30th birthday—she was struck by two things: “I said I wanted to be working, self-supporting,” she says. “And I wanted to be doing something international.”

Check, and check. Robbins, vice president and general counsel of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private-sector arm of the World Bank, is one of the most respected and influential lawyers in global finance. She spent two decades as counsel for J.P. Morgan, co-founded a consulting firm, was chief lawyer for NYSE Euronext, and since last July, has headed the legal arm of the IFC, which establishes sustainable investments in the developing world.

In many ways, she has not changed since she wrote that letter to herself. “I’m a very optimistic person—my mother’s legacy,” she says. “I try to make the best of every situation. I enjoy people from different backgrounds and cultures. I like being on the cutting edge of change. And I like building organizations and teams.”


Rachel Karen Finkle grew up in Trenton, N.J. Her father was a general-practice lawyer, her mother a homemaker. She and her two younger brothers shared an idyllic childhood until her father died when she was 13. Her mother went back to college and became a schoolteacher to support the family. Even when their house caught on fire not long after her father died—and the family had to move out for five months—her mother’s optimism sustained the family.

“Throughout this difficult period, my mother was a rock of stability and always showed us her positive outlook,” Robbins says. “She has been the most influential person in my life and her strength during adversity has been my model.”

When she wrote that letter at 16, Robbins was a good student, a member of the high school dance club and president of the science club. She had some vague idea about working in other countries, perhaps as a diplomat. “I didn’t think in those terms, but clearly I was a feminist then,” she says. “And I have remained one.”

Entering Wellesley College in 1968, she majored in French literature and marched against the Vietnam War. She met a young VISTA volunteer named Richard Robbins, and they fell for each other during an antiwar march in Washington, D.C., in the autumn of 1969. She spent her junior year studying in France; then they got married. When she graduated a year later, she landed a paralegal position with Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy. 

She entered NYU Law School shortly thereafter, and found that she loved it. “Constitutional law, especially,” she says. “I liked the thought process, the analytical aspects of balancing principles and applying them in real-world situations.

“I am not interested in the fight. But I do like the adversary positions in building arguments to make a persuasive case.”

While at NYU, she looked to civil rights advocate Burt Neuborne for advice. At Milbank Tweed, where she worked as a summer associate and took a job after graduating, renowned litigator Ed Reilly became a mentor. She rotated through different practice areas and found that she especially liked banking because it was international. When she had her son Jonathan in 1978, she was one of the first women at her firm to take a maternity leave. By the time Jeremy was born in 1980, the year she turned 30 and opened the letter, she was looking for ways to balance family and work while concentrating on the aspects of her work that she most enjoyed.

Out of the blue, she got a call from a former Milbank colleague who had gone to J.P. Morgan. Was she interested in working as a corporate counsel for a leading international bank?

She joined J.P. Morgan in 1981. At the time, the company was transforming itself from a commercial to an investment bank and launching its capital markets business. She became general counsel for its broker-dealer subsidiary, and later J.P. Morgan itself. Over two decades, she was the lead lawyer building the investment bank’s legal and compliance department, which spanned the United States, Europe, Asia, and Latin America. She applied Federal Reserve interpretations of the rules and oversaw the bank’s lobbyists—”educating Congress,” she calls it—and led or served on a number of advisory groups, including the U.S. Treasury Advisory Committee on Financial Services.

“The banking industry was not speaking with one voice,” she says.

After leaving J.P. Morgan in 2001 she co-founded a consulting firm, Blaqwell Inc., and served as general counsel for Citigroup International. She was recruited by John Thain, then CEO of the New York Stock Exchange Group, for its general counsel position in 2006, and helped engineer the 2007 merger with Euronext, the pan-European stock exchange.

The NYSE was a nonprofit, a monopoly ruled by tradition. Robbins helped develop the new public company—for-profit, in an extremely competitive industry, relying on high-tech innovations. The legal hurdles to bringing the exchanges into the global market and the 21st century were formidable, and Robbins found it just as important to manage people as policy. “[Global finance] is a consolidating industry,” she says. “The big models are changing. The people skills are changing. And the cross-border interaction is growing.”

Now at the IFC, an institution owned by its 181 shareholder countries large and small, rich and poor, Robbins oversees a global legal team that works across borders and cultures. “We talk about change a lot,” she says. “Building judgment comes from different experiences, different situations and meeting different kinds of people. The people who are going to thrive in the current world must be adaptable and flexible.”

The Washington-based staff, which includes about 80 lawyers, is growing, says Robbins, who is also in the process of decentralizing the IFC’s operations. She hopes that soon half of her team will be based in developing and “conflict” countries in Africa, Latin America, Europe and the Middle East in order to provide more specific on-the-ground legal advice.

“There’s still no substitute for face-to-face communication, particularly among different cultures,” she says. “[Americans] are sometimes viewed as making decisions too fast, without taking into account all the relevant factors and not having aired different views. What I try to do is put myself in [others’] shoes and understand what is important to them. I try to address their issues and solve ours at the same time.”

She oversees the legal aspects for projects that establish agricultural, industrial, oil and gas, and financial markets. The goal is to use the corporation’s funds—provided by the IFC, the shareholder nations and private investors—and show that profits are possible, then step aside. “We go where the private sector hasn’t gone,” she says. “We develop markets, and then induce private investment in those markets.”

Through its clients, IFC financing reaches more micro-entrepreneurs than any other development institution, she says. For example, in 2004 the IFC helped finance BRAC Bank in Bangladesh, which lends to more than 100,000 local entrepreneurs, helping the country’s small- and medium-sized enterprises.

She notes that last year the IFC committed more than $11 billion of its own funds and mobilized nearly $5 billion more in 372 investments in 85 countries. “We’re in business to make a profit, but also to improve lives,” she says.

Back in New York after work, she and her husband Richard often go out to dinner or the theater or to any number of charity events. Between the parents and their two sons—Jonathan, 31, runs a company that provides services for small businesses; and Jeremy, 29, is a lawyer in Boston—the family has a long list of humanitarian, philanthropic and political causes. Her commitment to those causes is one of the reasons that the job at the IFC is such a good fit, a capstone for her career. 

Robbins was recently asked: If you were writing another letter to yourself today, what would you say?

“What an interesting idea,” she replied. A few days later, she did it. She wrote a letter to herself, to be opened in 12 years, on her 70th birthday. She wrote about her mother, who passed away almost five years ago: “In spite of many adversities in her life, she understood that we can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to events.”

She also wrote about what she had learned, and what she wanted to remember, about balancing priorities, personally and professionally, and keeping her focus on the things that are important to her—including economic and cultural cooperation. She believes nations that learn about each other’s people and do business with each other are more likely to respect each other.

“Finally,” she says, “I wrote about a lesson from both my parents: the need to give back to the broader community. My hope is that I can contribute more of my time and energy in the period between now and when I read my next letter to help address the policy challenges our country faces.”


More on the IFC

The International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, serves as a catalyst to attract private investment in the developing world. Its attorneys work with local government officials to develop new products, complex financings and investments. Examples of projects include:

• A public-private partnership in Uganda for a hydropower project—the country’s largest private-sector investment—that will serve as a model for other power projects across the continent.

• A loan and equity investment to increase financing to 100,000 low- and middle-income borrowers in Botswana, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia.

• Advising on the upgrade and expansion of Jordan’s Queen Alia International Airport, the country’s first successful public-private partnership and largest infrastructure project.

• Creating an innovative model for low-cost telecommunications services in rural communities in Brazil that can be replicated in other developing markets.

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