University: University of Auckland
Degree: Law and commerce
Insurance (and reinsurance – the insurance of insurers) is an integral part of commercial activity throughout the world. The insurance practices of top-end firms advise on a range of areas, including coverage disputes, investment management, documentation, mergers and acquisitions (M&A) of insurers, and the transfer of books and business between insurers. Regulatory law governs matters such as the establishment and regulation of insurance companies throughout the world. Clients include insurers, reinsurers and investors in the insurance industry, as well as major insured companies and their captive insurers.
The small legal community in Benjamin Lyon’s native New Zealand meant he didn’t have to decide between becoming a barrister or a solicitor. Instead, the decision was between pursuing a career as a corporate or disputes lawyer and that was frankly a “very easy” one for him to make. Not only had Benjamin matched his skillset and personality to that of a corporate lawyer, but he'd also realised that the work disputes lawyers are involved in simply wasn’t for him.
“I enjoy the corporate world and bringing people together to do transactions. I picked corporate law because I thought I’d genuinely enjoy my time practising as a lawyer in this area,” he explains. Attracted by the idea of negotiating deals, he adds, “I knew this was where I wanted to spend my time”.
After making that initial decision, he then set his sights on becoming a banking and finance lawyer; however, Benjamin’s career took a slightly different turn when, “by hook or by crook”, he ended up doing more work in capital markets. Having made the leap from New Zealand to London, Benjamin “continued working in capital markets during the global financial crisis, which was a really interesting time to be a lawyer in London”.
It was this experience and, as a result, his strong capital markets background that ultimately led Benjamin to where he is today: “I ended up doing a lot of work in the regulated space for insurance companies, asset managers and banks trying to raise money out of the global financial crisis. It’s such a technical and interesting area of the law, and I was eager to explore the technical and regulatory side of financial services – Debevoise & Plimpton LLP gave me that opportunity.”
Fast forward 10 years and Benjamin is now a well-regarded insurance and financial services, transactional lawyer whose enthusiasm for his work is key to his success.
“While I started off as the junior lawyer in that relationship, I eventually became the person the client called to ask to lead on a deal worth £1.4 billion”
Like all junior lawyers, Benjamin started his career “drafting documents, and being involved in negotiations and meetings, for example”, and he’s “now the person who wins the work, builds the relationships with clients and really understands the outcomes the clients are trying to achieve”. As international counsel in the insurance team at Debevoise, it’s up to Benjamin and his team to work with clients to identify the purpose behind their deals – for example “whether it’s because the client wants to exit a business, enter a particular area or is being defensive against a competitor firm”.
He adds: “Sometimes clients aren’t always transparent with their desired outcomes or aren’t sure themselves. We tailor our legal support depending on the outcome identified.”
Benjamin has worked on a number of different transactions, collaborating with clients and colleagues over the years but one deal that particularly stood out to him spans his career, from a junior lawyer to where he is today. Having worked on his first multijurisdictional transaction over 10 years ago, which involved “setting up a global asset manager for a US insurance firm, which then went on to become an enormous asset manager in its own right”, his relationship with this particular client ended up coming full circle last year. “While I started off as the junior lawyer in that relationship, I eventually became the person the client called to ask to lead on a deal worth £1.4 billion” – a deal that was incredibly rewarding for Benjamin to execute given the 10-year-long relationship he’d maintained with the client.
As Benjamin’s role within the industry has developed so too have law firms, the industry itself and the way we now work. With hybrid working still popular in the legal profession and beyond, Benjamin considers the issues this poses. He emphasises how difficult it is for firms to replicate their culture and learning by osmosis, which is so important to lawyers at all levels, especially when a large proportion of the week is spent working in remote environments: “I still learn every single day from people who are more senior than me and hopefully I’m passing on what I know to those who are more junior than me. However, it’s immeasurably difficult to do that when you’re not in person.”
That said, “we can’t go back to working in the office five days a week, every week”, he remarks. “When we have young lawyers with friends and colleagues who work in tech firms who are 100% remote and working from coffee shops for eight hours a day, there’s a natural push from the legal profession” and the next generation “to be flexible”. The challenge for law firms is to work out how they can “communicate firm culture while continuing to be flexible, and modernising with the times”, Benjamin concludes.
While remote working, ensuring flexibility and successfully communicating firm culture in a hybrid environment presents a big challenge to the industry, the ever-changing landscape of global financial regulation is a particularly notable topic for Benjamin’s practice area: insurance. “Global regulatory change in the insurance space is interesting and fascinating because it brings in politics and true financial regulation from a fiduciary perspective for the people who work and sit on the boards of these insurance companies.”
This space is one to keep an eye on given that it’ll “continue to adapt to the current challenges” we face, Benjamin explains. These challenges include “market dislocation from rising interest rates, while for the past 15 years we’ve had decreasing or close to zero interest rates, the impact of the war in Ukraine or inflation”. The nature of the financial market means that “there’s always going to be regulatory change to keep up with”.
In this vein, Benjamin finds it incredibly interesting to “see how people balance commercial, financial, political needs across different stakeholders in the industry”.
“When I finished law school, I thought I knew as much as I needed to know about the practice of law. But being an eternal student is fundamental and probably the most important thing I’ve learnt about what it means to be a lawyer”
It’s this interest and enjoyment in the law that truly makes a successful lawyer – “regardless of whether you want to be a public, international, insurance, tax or M&A lawyer, it’s about really enjoying the law and having an inquisitive mind”. This doesn’t just mean having the desire to read a summary of the law but having the urge to delve into it further, to get to grips with all the nuances, and “understand the law that underlines everything”. It’s then about being able to hold conversations with people. “We don’t have a huge number of tall poppies at Debevoise and the hierarchy is very flat, so we want people who can be collaborative and feel confident talking to everyone at the firm, including the managing partner,” he explains.
As an aspiring or trainee lawyer, you don’t need to approach these conversations “with a deep knowledge of financial institutions or asset management”; the firm just wants “people who have an inquiring mind and are really interested in the law. These are the people who tend to do well both short and long term at Debevoise”.
In fact, there’s so much information to take in about the profession, which is something that won’t change, regardless of the stage you’re at. “When I finished law school, I thought I knew as much as I needed to know about the practice of law. But being an eternal student is fundamental and probably the most important thing I’ve learnt about what it means to be a lawyer.” From New Zealand to London, from junior solicitor to fully-fledged transactional lawyer, Benjamin has never stopped learning – an element of his job that he’s keen for the next generation to understand and be excited by.
His closing advice for candidates interested in a career at Debevoise is to not get lost in the column inches that the firm’s disputes space seems to dominate (unless, of course, this is what interests you). When looking into the firm, it’s easy to get swept up in the high-profile work the firm does in this area. Candidates researching the firm “tend to see Debevoise as solely a disputes firm, which is not the case” – in fact, while the global insurance team don’t land the same media coverage as their disputes counterparts, they’re still highly regarded in the insurance space. So, to summarise, if like Benjamin, candidates are deciding between becoming a disputes or corporate lawyer, it’s important for them to have a genuine interest in the work, an inquisitive mind and an acknowledgement that they’re now an eternal student – the combination of these elements will put them in an excellent position for a fantastic career in the profession.