University: Durham University
Degree: Modern languages
Aviation lawyers provide commercial, regulatory and insurance advice and litigation services to the world's airlines, manufacturers and financiers. Aircraft leasing and finance are key areas of activity, but issues also arise in relation to competition and state aid, insolvency and restructuring, emissions trading rules and aviation disasters. If the space industry is on the verge of another giant leap forward, then these lawyers will be in pole position to advise the companies and governments poised to take more satellites, probes and leisure passengers into orbit.
Charlotte Bown always knew that she wanted to be a lawyer, but rather than take the direct route into law via the LLB, she instead chose a degree that would equip her with a broader and more transferable skill set. "I studied modern languages at Durham University," she explains. "I wanted to do something different and opted for the long way!"
The interests developed over the course of her degree helped to steer Charlotte’s preferences toward the solicitor path, over becoming a barrister. "I was attracted to this side of the profession by the international aspect of commercial law at the higher end firms, while being a solicitor also gives you greater opportunity to see more of the industry in which you work," she says. "Especially taking into account my modern languages background, I wanted a role that would allow me to move around if I wanted."
Before graduating from Durham and beginning the GDL and LPC, Charlotte successfully secured a training contract with Watson, Farley & Williams (WFW) - a firm well-known for its strong finance practice - where she experienced the benefits of the firm’s unique training system: "Undertaking six, four-month seats instead of the usual four, six-month seats common elsewhere meant that I got to experience the whole firm over the course of my training contract. Over the two years, I was also able to build up relationships with people across the firm before moving into the aviation practice post-qualification."
It was not long before Charlotte’s desire to enjoy the international aspect of commercial law was catered for. "There is the opportunity to spend some time abroad at one of our overseas offices during your training contract - this happens at some other firms, but with us, it’s guaranteed," she explains. "I went to our office in Greece, where I worked on ship finance; it was a brilliant experience and next up is a client secondment in Europe, which I am really looking forward to."
However, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Charlotte’s training contract was her time spent in the aviation team, so it was no surprise that this was where she chose to qualify. The aviation team is part of WFW’s asset finance group and is a particularly strong area of the firm’s practice. "The work is really interesting and varies from client to client," she explains. "If we’re acting for a bank at the start of a transaction, we start by discussing and outlining the core structure of the financing. We negotiate with the different parties and put the documentation in place for every aspect of the deal; this may be a new loan or restructuring an existing one. Once the facilities are in place, we also handle a lot of the ongoing work, such as the delivery of aircraft under those facilities, or restructuring facilities. The work is varied and the aviation team also acts frequently on aircraft leases."
The aviation team has a strong corporate jet practice as well, facilitating the purchase of these expensive status symbols for companies or individuals big and successful enough to warrant them, while Charlotte has also been called on occasionally to get a client out of difficulty: "Sometimes, we are engaged to assist with the enforcement of security and once even got a call from a client asking us to advise on the release of an aircraft which had been wrongfully arrested due to the mistaken identity of the aircraft owner in the particular jurisdiction. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen all too often, though!"
Charlotte’s favourite aspect of the job is getting such complex, interesting deals off the ground. "One very large project that I worked on was particularly novel in terms of its structure and what the parties were trying to achieve, involving a very well-known name," she says. "It’s also really interesting to be so close to the industry; it’s great to go along to a delivery and actually see the aircraft as the finished product of what we have been working on."
However, the world of aviation finance is certainly not for the work shy. "It’s a demanding job, no question about that – things can move really quickly,” says Charlotte. “However, law is a demanding profession, so it comes with the territory. Working alongside clients and colleagues with whom you have strong relationships is really fulfilling."
Casting her gaze ahead to the outlook for commercial law over the next few years, Charlotte - like many commentators on the profession - sees the boundaries between law firms and their business clients becoming inexorably less defined. "More and more, being a good practitioner means going beyond just giving legal advice," she explains. "It’s now so important to be commercially minded and to factor your client’s business considerations into the legal advice that you provide. In any role, it’s important to be able to remain calm under pressure, build relationships with clients and - just to reinforce this - be aware of your client’s commercial objectives and priorities, using your expertise and analytical skills to help achieve them."
For anyone looking to spread their own wings as an aviation finance lawyer, Charlotte’s advice is to get as much experience as you can. "You can’t beat that as a way to find the kind of career that suits you," she says. "Work experience doesn’t even have to be in the practice area that most interests you - it’s all valuable, especially when it comes to making applications."
Finally, Charlotte emphasises the importance of keeping an open mind as you pursue your career: "If you’re willing to be flexible, then a lot of great opportunities will open up to you; many people end up qualifying into an area that they did not think would interest them at university or law school - the reality of practising law is very different and you need to be open minded!"