Suzana Blades has seventeen years of legal experience; she turns forty later this year. “I always knew I wanted to be an international lawyer,” the associate general counsel of commercial litigation and arbitration at ConocoPhillips says. At seventeen, Blades entered law school at Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and hasn’t looked back. Her extensive international litigation and arbitration experience has served her well at the Houston-based but globally present gas and oil conglomerate. Blades’s prowess in navigating International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) matters helped ConocoPhillips win two high-profile, long-fought arbitration battles with the governments of Ecuador and Venezuela. The lawyer says focusing on the needs of her team and pursuing opportunities to develop form the foundation of her success, and in turn, that of ConocoPhillips’s legal team.
“Suzana is a uniquely skilled leader, giving her teams the resources and space to succeed,” says Sean Grimsley, a partner at Bartlit Beck. “She is also an integral team member with an extraordinarily keen understanding of what resonates with arbitrators and decision makers.”
Blades came to ConocoPhillips after almost five years at firm Arnold & Porter in Washington DC—where she also earned her LLM in US law from Georgetown University—and a year negotiating oil and gas contracts at Hess Corporation in Houston. The Brazilian-born Blades says that amassing international experience was a priority as soon as she graduated. At Arnold & Porter, Blades gained experience doing international investment arbitrations before ICSID. ICSID is a World Bank organization that helps investors and states in the dispute resolution process. Blades’s international experience includes matters involving Algeria, China, Ecuador, Hungary, Panama, Peru, Senegal, the United Arab Emirates, and Venezuela.
It was the ICSID arbitrations involving Ecuador and Venezuela that helped her get a job at ConocoPhillips in 2011. The Ecuador case, stemming from a 2009 expropriation of assets in the country, was eventually arbitrated in ConocoPhillips’s favor for a net $360 million in 2017.
When Venezuela’s late Socialist leader Hugo Chavez expropriated oil assets in 2007, ConocoPhillips initiated ICSID proceedings that dragged on for twelve years. The World Bank eventually ruled in favor of ConocoPhillips early in 2019, awarding the company more than $8 billion.
As a member of the ligation team for both of those landmark rulings, Blades says that learning to navigate the cultural sensitivities of an international case has become somewhat second nature for her after working on a global basis for so long.
Following her promotion to her current role, Blades was tasked with taking over management of US commercial litigation along with international arbitration. With a team of seven under her, Blades and her team oversee climate change litigation, oil and gas royalty disputes, environmental disputes, and breach of contract issues. Blades also has placed significant focus on investment protection analysis, a relatively underdeveloped field that the lawyer believes ConocoPhillips is on the forefront of developing.
Blades says that taking over a team has been a learning experience and underlined the importance she places on people. “While my main goal is obviously to do the best for the company to be successful, I also need my team to be happy and feel valued,” Blades says. “I deeply care about them, and I challenge them to do the very best job they can.” Blades says she encourages her team to disagree with her and think creatively to come up with solutions. She hasn’t hesitated to ask her team for help in growing in her role. “Trust is a fundamental part of any relationship,” she says, “and I’m not going to pretend to know something that I don’t.” She says that if she doesn’t know something, she empowers her team to teach her. That honesty, matched with a willingness to make tough decisions, Blades believes, help ensure her team’s success.
“Suzana is fierce,” says Deb Kuchler, founding partner at Kuchler Polk Weiner. “She brings to her work an unrelenting curiosity paired with strategic thinking, challenging the status quo. She doesn’t think outside the box. To Suzana there is no box.”
Blades says she hopes to pass on to her team and mentees that tenacity remains a vital component in career development. “I grew up in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro in a lower-middle-class family that didn’t have much money, but my parents were very focused on education,” Blades says. After finishing first in her class during law school, Blades had to struggle to find scholarship money to enable her to study in the United States. “I had to knock on so many doors early on in my career,” Blades says. “Eventually, those doors open, but you have to seize the opportunity to walk inside.”
One of Blades’s law school professors helped her secure scholarships for additional schooling at New York University, and Blades says it’s a theme that has repeated her entire career. “I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t had so many incredible women helping me,” Blades says. At nearly every major crossroad of her development, Blades says a strong woman has been there to help guide and inspire her. From law school to Repsol, the Spanish oil and gas company where Blades first gained professional legal experience, to Arnold & Porter, where Blades truly spread her legal wings, to ConocoPhillips, where she learned how to manage a team and developed her leadership skills, Blades says that she is the product of women in positions of leadership.
As a mentor, Blades says development should be uppermost in every young lawyer’s mind. “If you bring your absolute best to work every day and seek development opportunities, you will be successful,” she says. Whether the goal is moving to a foreign country to practice law or taking on more roles and responsibilities, Blades is proof that aiming for global leadership isn’t too far out of this world.
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer:
“Suzana is a first-class lawyer, a master strategist, and inspires her team—both internal and external—with her dedication, professionalism, and humanity. It is a true pleasure to be one of her trusted advisers.”
–Elliot Friedman, Partner
Bartlit Beck is very proud of its long-standing partnership with Suzana Blades and ConocoPhillips.
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