University: Aix-en-Provence, France
Degree: Business law
The energy and natural resources sector is an important part of the legal landscape and is currently making more headlines than ever before. It covers, among other things, oil and gas projects, pipelines, refineries, liquefied natural gas, nuclear, renewables, and water and wastewater. Emerging energy initiatives such as biofuels and carbon capture and trading also feature. The key legal issues centre on the development and financing of projects, M&A, disputes and trading, and may be either domestic or international in scope.
Allison Soilihi’s journey to working in the energy department at global law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius didn’t take the most straightforward route. In France, where she trained, a typical training contract is split between three firms. Although Allison intended to become a tax lawyer (which is what she specialised in at university), her time training in the tax department of energy company Total led her to working in the oil and gas department of US law firm Dewey & LeBoeuf.
“It was a coincidence!” she laughs. “I had no experience in the legal field of oil and gas, but I had experience in the industry from my work at Total. When you’re young and have nothing to lose, I think it’s a good idea to try out different things.” For Allison, the gamble paid off and eight years later, she is still passionate about the sector she works in. When Dewey & LeBoeuf collapsed in 2012, she came to Morgan Lewis’ London office as a registered European lawyer. She was admitted to the roll of solicitors in 2018.
Two main types of work
“Our clients’ business focuses on natural resources – like oil and gas, and renewable energy; our practice actually extends to natural resources in general, which includes metal and mining,” says Allison, explaining that her work mainly involves long-term investments and projects in countries all over the world, and mergers and acquisitions. She runs through the two main types of work that she undertakes.
“The first type of work I do involves negotiating wide-ranging agreements with states and governments. Contract negotiation is really what I do on a daily basis,” she says. “Because the resources found in a country usually belong to that state, I must negotiate ‘master’ agreements that govern the relationships between our clients and the country for the entire duration of the project – that can be anywhere between 20 and 50 years.”
She continues: “Clients will also ask me to do due diligence on that country. What is the applicable legislation? Is it a favourable environment for new investors?” Allison explains that this is exactly what she is doing on a brand-new project she is currently working on, where her first task was to create a memorandum to explain the legal and regulatory system of the country. “It’s very important to conduct thorough research,” she affirms. “We need to know if the country changes its laws frequently, or if the court system is well stablished. This will help the client make their assessment as to under which terms and conditions they are going to invest.”
For this type of work, there’s often a more corporate aspect – something which Allison is familiar with as alongside her energy work, she also specialises in M&A and corporate work: “Normally the client will want to create a specific company for particular energy projects, and it’s my job to help with the selection of the most-efficient type of company and its incorporation and work on the relevant corporate documentation.”
Long-term relationships with clients
Lawyers in the energy sector should expect to work with their clients for many years. “What I like about working in this area is that most of the projects are long term,” says Allison. “Once you’ve negotiated the original contract between a client and a state, you can continue to assist the client at each step of the extraction cycle. Over many years you will help clients to navigate and interpret both the original contract framework and the law. It means that you are part of the story.”
On the other hand, M&A work is usually over the span of a few months, but you can get to work on several transactions for the same client year after year, which is very rewarding: “You become very cognisant of their business and areas of focus”.
But these long-term relationships with clients don’t mean that the work gets samey. As Allison explains, “the energy sector is very eclectic and every client’s approach is different. Every time I start work on a new project from the beginning, and that’s the beauty of my job.”
The energy industry is evolving, and renewable energy is growing. It’s important not to stick to just one type of energy matter, and to give yourself a broad spectrum of work.
What should students know about entering this varied and interesting practice area? “You need to be super organised,” advises Allison. “Having to juggle everything can be a challenge, especially in the early years. But you must be engaged, make sure you don’t miss anything and are available for your clients.” More than organisation though, she explains that aspiring energy lawyers must understand that the industry is dependent upon the market. “If you take oil and gas for example, it is a cycle – there will be high prices for some time, and then they will collapse and stay low before increasing again. When I first started, I wasn’t prepared for these ups and downs, but you have to learn to deal with the quiet periods as well as the busy ones.”
Allison recommends continuing to learn about the industry, even if you’re not busy with client work. “Right now, oil and gas prices have been impacted by covid-19, so I am doing far more M&A work at the moment and trying to keep myself up-to-date with industry knowledge.” She attends regular online conferences and webinars, participates in Morgan Lewis Energy Industry Team activities, and has published chapters in oil and gas books.
She observes that “the energy industry is evolving, and renewable energy is growing. It’s important not to stick to just one type of energy matter, and to give yourself a broad spectrum of work. I’m using this time to study and learn as much as I can because I know the rise of renewable energy will continue.”
Allison’s final piece of advice is based on her own experiences of falling into a practice area she loves: “Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid of changes or things that are unexpected. If it doesn’t work according to your initial plan, it doesn’t mean that it won’t work at all.”