Lee Buchheit: The man behind Greece’s debt restructuring

If any other European countries were to follow Greece into a debt default, Athens can recommend a lawyer.

Lee Buchheit crafted the restructuring deal that cut Greek debt by 100 billion euros and inflicted huge losses on bondholders in March.

Over the last 30 years, presidents and finance ministers have turned to Buchheit, 61, more than any other lawyer to help call off creditors when their governments run out of money.

His clients love him because he can help wipe away billions of dollars of debt. His legal opponents – bond investors, some of them so-called vulture funds – hate him for the same reason.

In addition to Greece, the folders stacked on the walls, desks and window sills of Buchheit’s modest corner office in lower Manhattan speak of other tough cases, such as those won for Iraq and Iceland.

Often, countries that turn to the dapper Buchheit have run short of money because governments stick with bad decisions for a long time, with disastrous results.

Buchheit wouldn’t want to change sides.

“Representing the sovereign in these affairs is just more fun. It is a mixture of politics, finance and law, and theater,» he said.

Buchheit recalled an Asian finance minister – referring to her only as «The Iron Lady» – resting a hand on his arm as tension mounted at 3 a.m. in a marathon meeting and saying: «I know you’ll get us through this.”

“That is the kind of thing you eat up with a spoon,» he said.

The academic papers and books he’s published and legal briefs he’s filed over the last three decades fill much of the void where no formal sovereign bankruptcy law exists.

His opponents say he follows a «scorched earth» strategy, playing off the position of strength of his government clients who do not have to answer to a bankruptcy judge.

Buchheit, a senior partner, has helped make Cleary Gottlieb Steen