Playing the Long Game

How Lisa Baltazar, a first-generation Hispanic American from New York’s Loisaida, positioned herself for long-term success as a legal leader with Zurich Insurance Group

Lisa Baltazar has come a long way figuratively, not physically. She is senior assistant general counsel of  Zurich Global Life, part of a $70 billion company, and she is based in Manhattan’s financial district, less than two miles from where she was born and raised. Baltazar is from what is affectionately known as Loisaida, a largely Hispanic segment of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Like many other kids from the Loisaida, she is a mix of Dominican and Puerto Rican, and the chances of her growing up to lead legal at a Swiss Fortune 500 company would have seemed slim to none.

Lisa Baltazar, Senior Assistant General Counsel, Zurich Global Life, Zurich Insurance Group
Lisa Baltazar,
Senior Assistant General Counsel,
Zurich Global Life, Zurich Insurance Group Photo: Sheila Barabad

But that’s Baltazar’s story. After attending SUNY at Stony Brook, graduating magna cum laude with a degree in political science, she then received a fellowship to the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, where she earned a master’s degree in public policy. She worked for a year as a credit analyst at Toyko Trust & Banking Co. (now part of The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi) before going to Columbia Law School, spending one semester as an exchange student at the University of Buenos Aires.

After graduating, Baltazar joined Davis Polk & Wardwell in 1998 and became part of the firm’s Spain and Latin America practice group, representing a number of Spanish companies who were either acquiring companies or expanding their businesses into Latin America. “I was handling corporate, banking, securities, and M&A work for these companies,” she says.

In 2000, Baltazar moved to London, where she could provide more direct support to the firm’s Spain-based clients, shuttling between London and the firm’s new Madrid office for another two years. She continued handling deals for corporate clients when she returned to New York, but started to desire longer-lasting associations.

“The deals I worked on lasted anywhere from four weeks to four months. Then I’d move on to a new transaction, which meant a whole new company, new deal team, etcetera,” she explains.

“The last major deal I worked on at Davis Polk involved the restructuring of a company in bankruptcy. I worked on that deal for 18 months. I liked having one continuous matter, getting to know a particular business really well, and becoming a trusted adviser. I saw the benefits of having a long-term relationship with one company.”

Baltazar was then recruited to New York Life and “really clicked with the people there. The executives valued the input of their lawyers. That is not always the case. And the feedback I got about the people and the company was very positive,” she says.

Baltazar started out in the office of the general counsel and then became deputy general counsel of the international division. “Improving communications with the company’s international legal and compliance teams across different time zones became one of my first priorities,” she says. “We set up a central online repository to report and track critical issues, including litigation matters, regulatory changes and events, and transactions that exceeded certain thresholds and required approval from the home office. This helped the company stay on top of important issues, no matter where they were taking place and enabled all of us to be on the same page.”

Baltazar then accepted a job at Zurich Insurance Group’s Global Life North America unit. The Switzerland-based insurance giant had decided to get back into the life insurance business in the United States, which it had exited in 2003, and it was recruiting top talent to help build the business. Baltazar was one of those recruits. “As I met with the executive leadership team, led by David Dietz, I realized that these very talented people were building something really special at Zurich,” she says. “I wanted to be part of it.”

Zurich’s US life insurance business has three major components: farmers life, group life, and affluent markets. Baltazar focuses on the last two. “When I joined in 2012, the private placements division of the affluent markets group had two dedicated funds. As we started offering more funds, we realized that the processes the company was using to evaluate which funds should be brought on board could be simplified and improved. With input from people in sales, investments, operations, and finance, we streamlined the processes for evaluating whether to offer a fund and communicating our needs and expectations to fund advisors. As a result of these changes, we were able to improve our internal governance over these processes as well. We now offer over 20 different funds, a remarkable expansion in just three years.”

That project required an extraordinary amount of trust and collaboration between the team members, which Baltazar seems to facilitate effortlessly. “The first thing you have to do when working in-house is establish trust with the business units,” she says. “I was lucky because my boss, Zurich Global Life North America’s general counsel, had already set that tone in the company—the business leaders here trust their lawyers, enjoy working with us, and know the value of bringing us in
early.”

When asked how she views the current economic climate and its effects on the insurance industry as a whole, Baltazar doesn’t shy away from acknowledging and inspecting the challenges. “The post-financial-crisis world is a significantly different world for the insurance industry,” she says. “The current low-interest environment has put a lot of pressure on companies, which impacts our capital reserves and earnings. The premiums we get from our policyholders need to earn enough of a return to cover future claims, which becomes harder to do in this kind of environment.”

“But Zurich is well positioned to weather whatever storms come our way,” Baltazar adds. “I still see a lot of growth and expansion for Zurich’s US life insurance business, which makes it exciting and challenging, and I want to continue to be a part of it.”