University: Nottingham Trent
Undergraduate degree: Law
Banking and finance is a global industry involving a wide variety of financial products, ranging from simple bank loans to companies to highly structured financing arrangements across multiple jurisdictions. The rise of internationalisation and the development of increasingly sophisticated financing structures mean that modern banking law and practice is becoming ever more complex. In the post-financial crisis era, banking and finance lawyers find themselves at the forefront of the evolution and recovery of the industry.
As part of Sarah Greenwood’s four-year law degree, she spent a placement year as a paralegal in the real estate team at Mills & Reeve, at the end of which she applied for – and gained – a training contract. She rejoined the firm after completing her LPC in 2010.
Now a senior associate, Sarah looks back at the choice between life as a solicitor versus a career at the Bar: “I’d enjoyed mooting at university and had done some mini-pupillages, so it wasn’t out of the question. However, having had the chance to be a paralegal for a year, I realised that the life of a solicitor was for me. I like the structure and routine of working as a solicitor in a law firm and understand a barrister’s career has a bit less of that. I also enjoy working as part of a team, with the high levels of client exposure and different types of work that you get as a commercial solicitor.”
The banking team at Mills & Reeve enjoys an excellent reputation for its expertise in real estate finance (Sarah’s specialism), corporate finance and asset-based lending, among others. “We employ a different model to most other firms, so that in real estate finance, for example, we carry out both the due diligence and the financing in team, offering a very joined-up approach to clients,” she explains. “Clients appreciate being able to speak to just one person on all aspects of a deal. It also means that our work is extremely varied – I might be conducting due diligence on a high-value investment asset one day, going on a site visit the next, and negotiating and drafting finance documents the next.”
She goes on to extol the virtues of this approach: “I enjoy helping clients, be they lenders or borrowers, to find a solution to commercial problems and to get the deal done. If we understand both the property and the finance, it makes it far easier for us to join the dots between the two and enables us to give commercial and practical advice that moves things along. Firms have to be able set themselves apart and offer something new to clients, including acting as trusted business advisers and finding innovative ways to do things.” Sarah is one of the firm’s ‘innovation champions’, helping to drive and explore innovative ways of working and encouraging innovation throughout the firm, which she says is “a great addition to the legal work that I do”.
Currently working on a cross-jurisdiction corporate acquisition of a property-owning company, Sarah explains some of the mechanics behind such a deal: “We are acting for the borrower, who is also the buyer. There are a lot of moving parts; obviously, you’re always dealing with deadlines in this job, but in this instance they are very specific and set in stone. I have to keep on top of these and make sure that all the relevant third parties are lined up to deliver on time to ensure we can secure funding and ultimately achieve completion of the acquisition for the client.”
“Clients are looking for lawyers who can explain not only the legal position, but also the commercial risks and benefits"
She recalls a similar deal for one for the firm’s key clients a couple of years ago: “It was a complicated corporate acquisition involving a number of different jurisdictions. As a result of a very tight timetable, everything had to be completed by midnight on a particular date just before Christmas. There was a massive flurry of activity with more lawyers involved than I could count, but we completed at 11:57pm, so all the hard work was worth it and everyone was extremely happy.”
The chance to meet and interact with a wide variety of clients and colleagues as part of her daily working life is one of the most pleasing aspects of the job. “We’re a large firm, with 1,000 people based across six offices, and we often work cross-office, especially if it is a large property portfolio-based transaction,” she describes. “For example, we recently worked on a deal that involved over 100 different properties, so we involved a large cross-office team to deliver the transaction for the client.”
As is usual in the legal profession, the fact that the job is far from nine-to-five means that sometimes commitments outside work suffer as a result: “But I work with great people and for great clients, and am passionate about the work itself, so although the hours can sometimes be long, it would only be a hardship if I wasn’t enjoying it!”
Banking on LawTech
Sarah’s view is that one of the biggest developments to hit the profession is artificial intelligence (AI) – with junior lawyers being the most deeply affected by its arrival. “The programmes that I’ve seen replace some work historically undertaken by junior lawyers, doing it much more quickly,” she reflects. “Although there is a way to go, especially with accuracy issues, it’s moving in the right direction and will really help to speed up transactions for clients. For example, if you have a portfolio acquisition financing and you want to establish if the seller has been using the same form of lease consistently across the portfolio AI can run those sorts of queries quickly, saving hundreds of person-hours. It also frees lawyers up to do more interesting work that actually requires human intervention.”
However, there is a flipside to this tech innovation: “Junior lawyers will lose the opportunity to perform certain tasks where often you spot things and learn by asking questions as you go along. It’s all about how to fill that knowledge gap and how to help lawyers coming up through the ranks adapt. We just have to find a new way to give those learning opportunities to juniors as AI takes hold.”
Skills to get ahead
Perhaps no surprise, Sarah’s view is that as for any transactional lawyer, being organised is key: “Developing your project management skills is essential – there are often so many individual elements and it’s your job to ensure that everything lines up and is in hand. If this is the type of work you’re keen on, then those skills are essential. You also need an eye for detail and an ability to be commercial – finding solutions that work for all parties and that get the deal done are essential.”
On that point, being commercially minded and putting yourself in the shoes of your client is also a key skill: “Clients are looking for lawyers who can explain not only the legal position, but also the commercial risks and benefits. They’re not interested in the academic elements of the law. Commerciality is about looking at the wider picture and realising why a client wants to do a deal; if something is particularly important to them, they might be prepared to take a view on what you identify as a key legal issue.”
More generally, when thinking about where you might want your career to go, Sarah suggests being alert to what you enjoy doing and where your interests lie – “you are far better working in something that you are passionate about” – and taking some ownership of its direction: “Don’t expect others to do it for you; if you want to get involved with things, ask. It’s your career and it will be what you make it.”