From the 2008 financial crisis to Covid: My career as a capital markets lawyer

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By Maya Ffrench-Adam on

Willkie Farr & Gallagher partner Jennifer Tait traces her career from the financial crisis to the ‘new normal’, ahead of her appearance at next week’s virtual student event

Willkie Farr & Gallagher partner Jennifer Tait

Starting as an associate in New York the week Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, Jennifer Tait found herself decamped to the financial printers during her first weeks at the office.

Initially qualifying as a solicitor in Dublin in 2007, Tait moved to the US to do a masters in banking and corporate finance law at Fordham. Passing the New York Bar in the summer of 2008, she was recruited to join US outfit Dewey & LeBoeuf in September of the same year. Tait tells me:

“I joined the firm at a really interesting time. My first weeks coincided with the filing for bankruptcy by Lehman, which marked the climax of the subprime mortgage crisis. In the weeks I started as an associate there were droves of bewildered-looking people walking around our building lobby and outside neighbouring buildings, who had obviously turned up for work in the morning to find their jobs no longer there.”

Several clients at the time were in capital-raising mode, and a lot of the junior (and senior) resource at the firm was being kept busy in the capital markets practice. As a result, Tait was asked to de-camp to the financial printers — the third-party printer service that specialises in printing financial and disclosure documents, including SEC filings, as well as the offering memorandum used in private placements.

Tait explains, “I would go to the printers and camp there overnight, sometimes for several days and nights, in big conference rooms together with company executives, advisers and investment banks. The group would hash out the disclosure that needed to be in the prospectus and we would run the changes through to the printer team to get it all done and filed before the launch window”. Hooked on this adrenaline-fuelled environment, Tait tells me, “that was when I started thinking capital markets was a really exciting area to be in”.

In March 2012, as part of larger team move in New York and London, Tait joined Willkie Farr & Gallagher, and relocated to the London office. Relocating from New York to London, Tait reveals, “I initially only intended to move for 18 months, but that was nine years ago now. The move presented an incredible professional opportunity for me as it coincided with Willkie accelerating its growth plans for London”. Tait’s move to the firm was part of a wider ambition from Willkie Farr & Gallagher to expand the London office to 100+ lawyers; an undertaking they have now delivered on.

Applications for Willkie Farr & Gallagher's Spring and Summer Vacation Schemes (2022) are open now and close on 20 December

The ‘new normal’

Capital markets has seen multiple themes emerge during the pandemic, with one such example being the frenzied growth of Special Purpose Acquisition Companies, or SPACs, for short. As Tait explains to me, with public markets largely recovered from the turmoil at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, SPACs still play a role. SPACs surged in popularity during the pandemic as a less risky path, when compared to traditional IPOs, of accessing capital amidst such uncertainty and volatility. Although SPACs have since faced some regulatory scrutiny which has slowed the pace of new listings, continued pressure on the traditional IPO, increased retail investor participation and markets awash with capital will mean SPACs will continue to present opportunities.

There has also continued during the pandemic, a deepening focus, on the issuer and the investor side, on Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) initiatives. For example, the capital markets team at Willkie Farr & Gallagher recently worked to bring a series of ‘sustainability-linked bonds’ to market for a first-time issuer. ESG is increasingly becoming financially material in the capital markets, with companies wanting to support the development of the sustainable financing market, and the wider social and environmental progress that this type of financing can advance, and with investors expecting to integrate specific ESG criteria in their investment decisions and wanting to connect their investing to sustainable goals.

Process wise, the process of bringing a capital markets deal to market has also evolved significantly. Indeed, Tait tells me how pre-pandemic, “you would launch a deal, then the management team and the bankers would go ‘on the road’ to sell it to the capital markets investors”. What were once physical investor meetings held over a series of days in hubs like London, Paris and New York very quickly had to flip to a virtual setting. Even now, there seems to be an appetite for this to continue as part of the ‘new normal’. Tait explains how “capital markets investors have gotten comfortable with the change, so even as the pandemic travel restrictions continue to ease, a lot of the market are choosing to conduct roadshows virtually, and issuers and investors alike appear to be welcoming of this enhanced flexibility”.

Careers advice

When asked why she decided to be a transactional lawyer from the get-go, Tait explains that she enjoyed the “back and forth of the negotiating dynamic”. For her, transactional work was an area where, even as a junior, she felt she could add real value by being an organised and detail-orientated project manager. She explains: “If you do a really thorough job and unearth some point in a diligence review, for example, it can have a really important impact on the transaction.”

For students looking to follow in her footsteps, Tait emphasises the uniqueness of capital markets is that so much of the information relating to capital markets deals is publicly available, and encourages anyone interested in the area to foster that interest by reading the financial press or the information that is publicly available on the stock exchange websites.

She explains:

“Capital markets lends itself to those willing to cultivate that interest because all you have to do is pick up the newspapers and read the financial press — there’s a tonne of information out there for interested students to begin to get to grips with.”

Jennifer Tait will be speaking alongside other lawyers from Willkie Farr & Gallagher at ‘The world after the pandemic — with Willkie Farr & Gallagher’, a virtual student event taking place on Tuesday 12 October. You can apply to attend the event, which is free, now.

Applications for Willkie Farr & Gallagher's Spring and Summer Vacation Schemes (2022) are open now and close on 20 December

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