Hanh Nguyen

Charles Russell Speechlys

University: University of Sydney  
Degree: Commerce and law

Restructuring and insolvency lawyers are called in when a company, individual or other organisation is in financial difficulties and is facing possible liquidation, administration or bankruptcy. In such situations, restructuring and insolvency lawyers work to advise the organisation’s management and other stakeholders on what to do next, which could be filing for administration or a distressed merger. A restructuring and insolvency lawyer’s work is also to advise organisations that have not yet become insolvent on how to avoid such a situation and formulate contingency plans. In addition, restructuring and insolvency lawyers will also advise an organisation’s creditors where their borrower is facing financial problems.

When studying and training to be a lawyer in her native Australia, Hanh Nguyen may not have imagined that she would be a partner, specialising in restructuring and insolvency, in a respected City firm a decade later. However, she had always been open to wherever her legal career might take her: “I always wanted to keep my options open, which is why I did a double degree. However, towards the end of the degree when I was looking for part-time work, I was drawn to legal secretary roles and having secured one, realised that the practical element of law really resonated with me.”

After qualification in 2004, Hanh spent seven years at a boutique general practice firm in Sydney, before sitting the Qualified Lawyers Transfer Test and coming to the United Kingdom. She spent time at both Teacher Stern LLP and Salans LLP, where she first explored corporate and personal insolvency work, coinciding as it did with the global recession. She then joined Speechly Bircham LLP (which merged with Charles Russell LLP in 2014 to form Charles Russell Speechlys LLP), for what was supposed to be a sixmonth contract: “Seven years on, I’m still here – and now a partner!”

Cradle to grave

Hanh explains the way in which the firm occupies a unique place in terms of restructuring and insolvency work, aiming to be a one-stop-shop for clients. “We do both contentious and non-contentious work, so consider our role to be from cradle to grave,” she explains. “Stage one is where a company or individual is in financial difficulties and our client – for example, the company’s board of directors, shareholders or bank – gets us involved to see if we can restructure or rescue the company, to avoid it going into an insolvency process. In that case, you’re looking at ways to avoid the company being wound up or placed into another insolvency process, such as via restructuring its debt or minimising its liabilities. In those cases we work closely with our corporate finance and banking colleagues to see what can be done.”

Stage two is when the company moves officially into the relevant insolvency process, and Hanh and her colleagues find themselves usually acting for the office holder that has been appointed as the agent of the company, namely, an insolvency practitioner – for example, Deloitte, KPMG, Duff & Phelps or Grant Thornton: “Our role then is to advise on whatever needs doing, such as selling the business or making employees redundant – whatever needs to be done in order to realise assets for the company’s creditors.”

The third and final stage can involve pursuing delinquent directors or others who may carry fault for the failure of the company: “The situation may involve fraudulent or questionable conduct by directors, such as stripping the company of assets before it was wound up. We then issue court proceedings to recover assets that rightfully belong to the company. Again, the main objective is to achieve a result for the creditors.”

“Listen to what others have to say about the firms you’re interested in – it’s not just the quality of work, but also the quality of colleagues”

Variety is the spice

This full-service offering means work is never dull and the chance to work internally with many of the firm’s different teams is a key feature of her practice: “No two days are the same. I work with our corporate finance, employment, banking and private client colleagues, which keeps thing interesting. I’m not an expert in any of these areas, I have to be aware of them and liaise with colleagues accordingly. Compared to other firms that might just do contentious or non-contentious work, we have always thought it was useful to have both skill sets, even though my preference is probably for the advisory and transaction work.”

There is also satisfaction to be derived from the variety of clients that Hanh deals with on a daily basis: “It ranges from fellow professionals in accountancy firms to personnel at all manner of different companies. It’s good not to get too entrenched with one type of client.”

Hanh reflects on some of the challenges that come with being made partner: “It requires a different skill set, namely learning to manage people, supervise and delegate. It’s assumed that you’re technically sound and competent by this point in your career, but there are new people skills that you can only really learn on the job. Business development and marketing is also part of it – and again, not something that you’re taught at uni! Developing long-term relationships with clients is a real skill. Still, I welcome the challenge – BD is encouraged by the firm from a very junior stage, especially developing networks among your peer group, both within and outside of the firm.”

There is also real satisfaction from working on matters that non-lawyers can understand. “I like it when I’m involved with something that’s in the press or quite high profile, such as the Borders or East Retail insolvencies. They may not be billion-pound-deals, but it’s nice to have some spark of recognition from people, in terms of them understanding what I do. I worked on a case that involved a power plate manufacturer, which friends I talked to found relatable! I also find that friends use me as a sounding board if they want advice about investing; I can offer a different perspective that has been gained by working in restructuring and insolvency, even though sometimes it is all a bit doom and gloom!”

As you might expect, the spectre of Brexit looms large on the horizon, as Hanh describes: “There is a lot of uncertainty ahead. All law firms and accountants can do briefings about what might happen, but who really knows? There might be a decline in investment, fewer exports and imports, but it’s all speculation. The key issues facing our area of law and the profession generally will be founded in the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and where that takes us.”

Sage advice

Hanh’s top tips to would-be lawyers include the need to “research firms well; don’t just apply to the top five firms just for the sake of it or because everyone else is.” She cites client interaction or being part of a team as two potential motivators and, more broadly, a need to think about what you really want out of your career: “It’s a long-term commitment and you have to be certain it’s right for you. What are your strengths and are they something that you can apply to a particular practice area or way of working? One example – if the idea of advocacy makes you want to jump out of bed, then life as a barrister could be for you. If it fills you with dread, then it’s probably not! Working culture and environment are also important. Listen to what others have to say about the firms you’re interested in – it’s not just the quality of work, but also the quality of colleagues; a good environment and sound career progression may become more important than massive deals.”

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