Power Punk: Marco Masotti

Lawyer fled apartheid to study law, bring Jefferson to South Africa; won Fulbright, fell in love; rakes in the Benjamins, for business and charity alike.

Marco Masotti made partner at one of the top New York City law firms, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, at the age of 32. That may be reason enough for his colleagues in the infested waters of corporate law to take to the shark cage.

But the 35-year-old Mr. Masotti-who has presided over the creation of more than $16 billion in private investment funds and cut deals on behalf of industry behemoths like Brown Brothers Harriman, the Wicks Group, Carlyle Asset Management and AIG-is also chair of his own New York City Bar Association committee. That allows him to weigh in on the big and controversial matters of his industry, like the S.E.C.’s new regulations for hedge funds.

“A committee of the city bar is listened to, and therefore Marco is,” said Robert Hirsh, the founding partner of Paul Weiss’ private investment-funds division. “And what was obvious once he began [the committee] was that all of the major lawyers in this practice wanted to be on it: It’s a Who’s Who of people in our business.”

Mr. Masotti wasn’t always destined for the corporate towers of midtown Manhattan. Growing up in apartheid-era South Africa, the son of an Italian toolmaker and a South African mother, he marched against the regime. As he tells it, the only reason he decided to head to the U.S. in 1991 was to study at the University of Virginia Law School, learn the secrets of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and then bring them back to South Africa.

But after a year on a Fulbright scholarship, he fell in love with a New York–bound J.D., now his wife, Tracy, and followed her to New York, where he took a job at Paul Weiss. Before long, he found his negotiating talents eclipsing his interest in full-time do-gooding.

Mr. Masotti wondered if he “sold out,” but generally consoled himself that a “corporate career will breed contacts and resources that will allow me to one day make a meaningful difference in the area of human rights.” His background may explain why he’s chairman of the board of Shared Interest, a nonprofit group that provides loan guarantees to small businesses in his native South Africa.

“I’m working constantly,” Mr. Masotti said, his lanky body scrunched into a chair. Behind him sat framed photos of his three kids, ages 1, 4 and 6 years old; to his right, a picture of himself with Nelson Mandela and Sheila Sisulu, South Africa’s U.S. ambassador, smiling broadly.

If his work seems like a jumble of killer instinct and do-gooder ethos, it all makes sense to him. He creates hedge funds, funds of funds, buyout funds, venture-capital funds and distressed funds on behalf of banks, pension funds, insurance companies and other clients so they can turn around and orchestrate leveraged buyouts. Or, he said, launch a development project in Africa. Or create a new technology company. Each fund is an elaborate web of dozens, if not hundreds, of investors from around the globe. Mr. Masotti has to shepherd all these investors toward a final, lucrative deal. “It’s diplomacy through and through,” he said. “In many ways, the lawyer is the driver of these pools of capital, and these pools are in many ways the drivers of the American economy.”

These funds “are the structures that you run your business on for a decade a more,” said Glenn August, co-founder and president of specialist asset managers Oak Hill Advisors, for which Mr. Masotti has helped raise more than $4 billion. Mr. August said he believed Mr. Masotti would “become one of a handful of leading lawyers that large clients look to for advice, like a Marty Lipton or Joe Flom or Felix Rohatyn.”

– Lizzy Ratner