Why the show will go on for international corporate lawyers
Take the world economy doom-mongers with a pinch of salt, urges Ashurst partner Nick Cheshire ahead of ‘Life as a global business lawyer’. This could actually be a good time to be entering the profession
Putting personal views aside, you have to look at the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote as potential opportunities. In the short term, that means being as close to clients as you can be to help them with any defensive manoeuvres that they might want to undertake. In the longer term, despite what the doom-mongers may claim, in all likelihood international trade and globalisation will continue albeit in an environment of less harmonisation and more national regulation. For lawyers, there will probably be greater emphasis on understanding the nuances of local laws.
Part of the job, of course, is being flexible and adapting to changing conditions. Like most of my colleagues I have been doing that throughout my career. Having started out as a commercial solicitor with Eversheds in Birmingham, handling distribution and outsourcing contracts and other similar work, I moved down to London to join Ashurst in 2001 in order to specialise in transactional corporate work.
At the time, the City was still recovering from the bursting of the dotcom bubble, some of the fallout from which had badly affected insurance companies. So I found myself spending three very busy years helping insurers offload non-core businesses and develop new corporate structures. By 2004 the international M&A market had really picked up, so I moved over onto working on more of those deals which became bigger and bigger as private equity houses moved in with ever greater amounts of leverage.
And then the 2008 financial crisis hit. I was on paternity leave at the time, just months after I had been promoted to partner. It all felt pretty dramatic as credit markets almost entirely seized up and the phones stopped ringing for six months. Since then, after a recovery of sorts, it has been pretty patchy. As a lawyer though, whatever the market conditions, you are almost always in demand for something. Currently, for example, despite — or perhaps because of — all the uncertainty that’s prevailing, we are very busy across all practice areas.
For students coming into the profession then, perhaps the most important quality to possess, beyond intellectual ability and commercial awareness, is adaptability. You need to always have an eye on the future and be ready and willing to learn new things. This principle applies as much to the type of work you do as to the way you do it. When I began my training contract in 1996 there was just a single phone on my desk. Now there are laptops, iPhones, video conferencing and complete access to any documents I need wherever I am. A significant moment was 2004 when suddenly everybody had a Blackberry which meant adapting to a new way of working.
In this respect, young people are fortunate because they have grown up with technology from an early age. This is a huge advantage in today’s business world.
At an international firm like Ashurst, other advantages are skills such as being able to speak another language and being open and enthusiastic about working with people from different backgrounds. To that end we are keen for our trainees to undertake international secondments so that they gain experience of seeing the world from another perspective.
Ultimately though, being a corporate lawyer is all about using your judgement to balance legal risk in the context of commercial reality. We are a long way away from that being done by technology. Whatever the political climate or latest development in working styles, if that idea enthuses you then you may have a successful legal career ahead of you.
Nick Cheshire is a partner in Ashurst’s London corporate transactions practice. He will be speaking this evening at ‘From Australia to London and everywhere in between: life as a global business lawyer’.