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Meet the lawyer

Natalie Burns

Natalie Burns

University: King's College London
Degree: Business management
Year of qualification: 2017
Position: Associate (1 year PQE)
Department: Commodities, trade and upstream financing (Banking Group B)

What attracted you to a career in law? 

I studied economics at A level and really enjoyed it but at university economics becomes very mathematical, which is not my strongest subject, so I decided to do a business management degree. Towards the end of university, I thought about applying for various graduate schemes, but I did not think that it would be enough of a challenge for me. As part of my degree I had taken employment law and corporate governance modules and I thought that law would be a real challenge. I felt that pursuing a career in law would also allow me to work with a variety of businesses, both big and small, and within a wide range of different industries. You do not get this breath of experience if you just work for just one company.

Why solicitor not barrister?

I was always very focused on working with companies. While barristers do work with companies, their focus is on the law and being in court. In addition, barristers are self employed and I am not the biggest risk-taker! I do not think that I would enjoy the uncertainty of being a barrister and I like the transactional side of the legal world, which I don't believe you get to experience in the same way if you are a barrister. 

How did you decide which firms to apply to?

It was important to me that the firms to which I applied had a banking element to their practice. I had worked in recruitment where we headhunted junior bankers into private equity and hedge funds. I enjoyed speaking to the candidates that we were trying to recruit about their jobs and saw that they were intelligent individuals. From that point on, I knew that I was interested in banking, so I focused on firms with strong banking practices. I also knew people at Dentons and I liked the idea of being able to work with them.

How much work experience had you had? Why is it so important?

I had some informal work experience and I had also done a couple of vacation schemes before I got the offer of a training contract. I think work experience is important because it allows you to provide evidence and give examples of why you want to be lawyer. That said, there are people on my intake who had no work experience and still got training contracts.

What do you think made your application successful?

I showed that I had confidence in my abilities, that I had really done my research and that I believed that I was the right personality fit for Dentons. I took the approach that if I did not get the training contract then I was not the right fit for the firm, rather than taking it as a personal attack, which I know can be difficult! There are a lot of resources online where people write about their experiences in interviews, how the process is run and what to look out for. These resources are invaluable. 

Which departments did you train in? 

I spent six months in planning for my first seat, then spent my second seat in the commodities, trade and upstream financing team. I went on secondment to Standard Chartered Bank in my third seat and my final seat was in corporate. 

Please discuss a specific deal/case that you were involved with, outlining your role in the matter.

When I worked in corporate, I supported an associate and a partner with the de-listing of a company from the London Stock Exchange. The tasks that I completed were mainly administrative, but I did have to go to Amsterdam for the day and took notes for a meeting that lasted eight hours! 

How often as a trainee were you communicating directly with clients?

This varied from department to department, but in banking group B I was communicating directly with clients on a daily basis. At the beginning of my seat, my supervisor would check my emails, but after a while I was able to send emails and take and run calls with clients on my own. It was daunting at first, but I very much enjoyed this aspect of the job – it is nice when a client knows and treats you as a valued part of the team.

How does the qualification process work at the firm? 

The qualification process is transparent at Dentons and happens quite early. This is good as it gives people an opportunity to look elsewhere if they are not successful in securing a newly-qualified position. You can apply to a maximum of two departments. The first stage involves submitting a comprehensive application form for each department and the second stage is an interview with two or three partners in the department that you've applied for – half the interview is based on a case study to assess your technical ability and the other half focuses on your personal attributes. It's not as scary as it sounds!

What do you wish you’d known about being a trainee before you started that you now do?

That “the world keeps on spinning". No matter how much of a big deal it all seems – for example,  asking for annual leave as a trainee is one of the scariest things to do – things will work out in the end. 

Please outline your area of expertise. What might you do in a typical day? 

The commodities, trade and upstream financing team primarily assists banks and trading houses that lend money to borrowers to finance the production and sale of commodities. We focus on commodities, which can be any kind of commodity including coffee, sugar, cocoa beans, oil and metals. We are also increasingly involved with export credit agency-backed transactions. In a typical day I would likely be doing some sort of drafting – perhaps drafting a security document or letter. I would respond to a fair number of emails during the day and chase documents in relation to conditions precedent needed in a transaction.

Please discuss a current/recent specific deal/case, outlining your role in the matter.

We recently acted for Vitol (one of the largest global energy and commodity trading groups in the world) on its participation in the recent $534 million debt financing for Shoreline Natural Resources Limited (SNRL), a Nigerian oil producer. The funds are being used to refinance existing debt and provide SNRL with the working capital to expand its production.

I worked closely with a partner on this transaction and I was very much involved with the transactional aspects on the deal. I was in direct contact with Vitol and the other banks in the syndicate and participated in calls with all parties. I was in charge of the conditions precedent list – the items that must be satisfied ahead of a facility being utilised before the banks lend their money. This was a long list of approximately 130 items and required a substantial amount of organisation and clear, concise communication. 

Does your department largely work independently, in support of another department or is it routinely supported by other departments? 

The banking department mainly works independently. However, banking group B is made up of three sub-groups: aviation finance, project finance and commodities, trade and upstream financing. There is quite a lot of overlap between the different sub-groups and the junior associates in the team are encouraged to work across all three of these sub-groups.

What do you most/least enjoy about your career and why?

The most enjoyable aspects of my job are, firstly, the people I work with/for and the feeling of being valued at work. Secondly, I enjoy working in a department with a good mix of transactional and non-transactional work for impressive clients who do exciting deals. 

On the flip side, there is a lot of pressure in this career and it can be sometimes difficult to switch off in the evenings and at weekends. I think you could consider this career a ‘lifestyle choice’ but I am happy with my choice overall. 

What is the work-life balance like at your firm? How often do you have late nights/work at weekends?

This varies from department to department, but in general the work-life balance is good. I value my work-life balance and the majority of people in the firm do too. There are definitely some late nights and very occasionally some weekend work, but that is what you sign up for when you become a solicitor. 

What is the wider culture like – are there sports teams/trips out? Is there a LGBT group or women’s group? 

There are lots of opportunities to get involved in the wider firm culture: there is a netball team, a football team and a rugby team. There are ‘away days’ in each department as well as a very strong LGBT network, black professionals network and women's network. 

How involved are you with business development and promoting the firm?

The partners encourage us to attend meetings and events in order to meet clients face to face and build relationships with them, and there are lots of opportunities to get involved with different business development activities. 

What makes your firm stand out from the rest?

There are two main aspects that make Dentons stand out from the rest. First is the firm’s size and scope globally. We genuinely do communicate and interact with our colleagues all over the world. This working relationship is made much easier when you are part of the same firm. Second is the calibre of work. We have very interesting clients – exactly the type of clients that I wanted to work for when I decided to pursue a career in law rather than business – and we undertake very interesting work. For example, Dentons assists the facility agent each year with the financing of the Ghana Cocoa Board facility, which encourages the production, processing and marketing of cocoa throughout Ghana.

Describe the firm in three words. 

Global, friendly and driven.

What’s been the highlight of the last month at the firm?

We have a secondee over at the moment from the Rwanda Development Board, so last night the associates in the team took her out for a farewell dinner, which was fun. I also went to Switzerland for a physical signing a couple of weeks ago, which was quite an experience.

What’s the biggest opportunity you’ve been given since joining the firm?

Being so heavily involved in such a large transaction from start to finish, as I was on the Vitol transaction I mentioned. I learnt so much from this transaction and it was invaluable to be so involved in a transaction like this at the beginning of my career.

What skills/strengths do you need to be a successful solicitor?

Above all, you need to be resilient, organised, a good communicator and be motivated to do the best job that you can in order to provide value for your clients.  

What advice do you have for budding solicitors who are contemplating a career in law?

Play to your strengths, even if they are not directly related to law.

What’s your signature dish?

Rocket, red chillies, crispy onions, pine nuts (lots of oil and salt and pepper) and a pan-fried salmon fillet (maybe with a bit of chorizo) – a quick and firm favourite on a weekday.