PIMCO’s Elena Branzburg Explains the Benefits of Getting Comfortable with Change

The challenges of Elena Branzburg’s immigrant upbringing and the many evolutions of her career have made her an ideal “legal athlete” for PIMCO

Elena Branzburg, SVP and Senior Counsel, PIMCOPhoto by Adam D. Fisher
Elena Branzburg began making her way to the United States from Ukraine (then part of the former Soviet Union) at the age of seven. It was such a complex process—“making our way over to America, country by country, constantly being in unfamiliar territory,” she recalls—that she’d celebrated another birthday before her family finally settled in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Something was gained in the trek, though. Branzburg’s familiarity with the unfamiliar now helps her deal with change better than most, particularly in her career. And, in fact, she loves it. “If a software update is available, I immediately want to get it,” she jokes.

When her interest in international business law took flight, she first landed an internship at a conservative think tank in Washington, DC. She quickly learned, though, just how superficial and sexist such a space could be. In her exit interview with the adviser of the internship program, she received high praise for her writing and research skills, but it came with the advice that she’d have to be far superior to her colleagues if she ever wanted to be remembered for more than her looks.

Elena Branzburg PIMCO
Photo by Adam D. Fisher

“We had a lively debate about that,” she says, laughing. “I do think he was trying to be helpful. He wasn’t saying it maliciously; that was the funny part. He actually thought he was giving me good advice. But I decided if that was the reality of the DC world, that wasn’t the world I wanted to be in.”

So, Branzburg set her sights on the West Coast, finding along the way that commercial real estate law piqued her interest, and she studied it further during her time at UCLA School of Law. The only problem was that this new interest came in 2008, as the United States fell into a recession that proved highly discouraging to most aspiring real estate attorneys. Fortunately, Branzburg had accepted an offer to join Paul Hastings LLP (after completing the firm’s summer associate program) just a month before the trouble erupted.

When she joined Paul Hastings at the start of 2010, the recession wasn’t yet over, but Branzburg remained dedicated to her field of choice. “I think it was actually a great time to learn to be a real estate attorney,” she says of those days. “I worked on a lot of workouts and restructurings; I handled multiple settlements between JV partners and lenders. You could see why having the right documentation and the right language mattered when things went bad.”

Her persistence—to say nothing of her experience—paid off five years later, when California-based investment-management firm PIMCO invited her to join its growing legal team in 2015. The opportunity to move into a newly created position appealed to Branzburg, but PIMCO was also looking for attorneys who could be flexible, who could pivot, who could leap into an area of law relatively new to them and make it their own. They call such people their “legal athletes.”

“My ability to be comfortable in a new arena probably comes from having to become comfortable in new arenas so many times in my life, constantly, at a young age,” Branzburg says. “It was about watching my parents thrive in completely foreign places, rising to a challenge rather than shying away from it.”

Still, it doesn’t mean Branzburg hasn’t had some anxious moments. She recalls that her earliest days at PIMCO included a running list of all the new acronyms she was learning (“It came to about forty,” she says), and the job sent her into plenty of situations where she didn’t immediately know the right thing to do.

“The first year here was a little daunting,” she says. “You don’t know what you don’t know, right? But we all work as a team. The head of our group is a phone call away; everyone’s a phone call away, and it’s great to be able to pick up the phone and ask people with more expertise their opinions.”

Since becoming a legal athlete at PIMCO, Branzburg has developed all-new areas of interest and has excelled at her job. She was even promoted to the position of senior vice president and senior counsel last year. In addition to her work with the real estate team, Branzburg has particularly enjoyed working on private equity transactions because each deal provides an opportunity for her to understand the inner workings of an entirely new business. That’s perfect for an attorney as challenge driven and successful as she has become—and the work is a solid rejoinder to what she was told during her first internship.

“I have learned,” Branzburg says, “that I can thrive as a woman in a very male-dominated field and be taken seriously for my abilities and hard work, which is a great feeling.”

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Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP:

“It is always a pleasure working with Elena. She is sharp, level-headed, responsive, and business-minded.”

–Steve Edwards, Partner