Name: Eric Burke-Arevalo
Firm: White & Case LLP
University: University of Bristol
Whenever a large industrial or infrastructure project is conceived, built and operated, legal advice is key. A project might relate to the construction of a new hospital or wind farm, or a new gas pipeline or toll road. In other parts of the world, UK lawyers frequently work on the construction and financing of energy and transport projects, leveraging their expertise in English law (which is often the law of choice for a project's commercial and financial agreements). Large projects involve lawyers who specialise in finance, construction and corporate law, all of whom must work over long periods of time and to finely-tuned schedules. Some law firms work with the project companies and their shareholders who build projects; some the governments and organisations that commission projects; some focus on representing banks and other funding entities who lend money for projects; and some advise all of these.
For law graduate Eric Burke-Arevalo, the choice to become a solicitor at global firm White & Case LLP was inspired not by the legal world, but the literary one. Studying a staple in legal literature (and his “favourite book”), To Kill a Mockingbird, at GCSE motivated Eric to pursue a career in law at an early stage. However, the law is broad and the decisions you have to make don’t stop at choosing a law degree for university. “I have always been interested in the law. I didn't know which area of the law I wanted to pursue but decided to study it at the University of Bristol.”
Like all aspiring lawyers, Eric had a decision to make: enter a law firm or the Bar? In Eric’s case, deciding whether to go down the solicitor or barrister route was a question of lived experience, rather than active preference. Eric says: “When I got to Bristol, I found that most of the events there were geared towards becoming a solicitor. It just so happened that most of the events were from commercial law firms in the City, so I almost chose this route by chance. But I’ve been happy with my decision so far!”
Now a newly qualified (NQ) associate, it’s clear to Eric which aspects of being a solicitor suit him most. “I’ve realised that my skill set is better suited to being a solicitor,” he explains. Although there are many ways the paths of solicitor and barrister intersect, Eric recognised that life in a courtroom wasn’t for him. “I enjoy working as part of a team,” he says. “I’m also not the greatest fan of public speaking or debating”, which, as a barrister, inevitably makes up a lot of your workload.
Evidently, considering your strengths and preferences is key when making an informed decision about your legal career. Eric further explored his skill set and practice preference during his training contract at White & Case and, despite starting as a trainee during the pandemic in 2021, he found that the firm really supported its employees during that difficult time. Having eventually qualified into project finance, which is where Eric completed his first seat as a trainee, he looks back fondly on his training contract experience. “My final seat was in Paris doing international arbitration,” he explains. “I was lucky enough to go on secondment to the firm’s Paris office and I absolutely loved it – I can’t recommend it highly enough!”
From training contract to associate
Exploring a variety of sectors within his work as a project finance lawyer is a focus for Eric at this stage of his career. As a trainee, his first experience was in an area everybody is familiar with: “I was mostly working within the infrastructure sector. To break it down, the area is when you’re financing a specific asset. This can be transport, battery storage power stations, data centres, roads or even airports.” Exploring the legal aspects of everyday, tangible assets was an exciting experience for Eric and enabled him to understand what this area was all about as a first seater, “especially how fast-paced, current and topical it is”. Eric has now gained further experience in the mining and metals sector, which he’s thoroughly enjoying, especially given how important the sector is in moving towards a greener future.
While explaining his day-to-day work, Eric reflects on life as a NQ associate working in project finance. Like all lawyers, much of Eric’s time is spent drafting legal documents, negotiating contracts and liaising with clients. However, looking more specifically at his work as a project finance lawyer, he says: “You learn very quickly in project finance. As an NQ, you’ll probably take the first draft of a document. This week I’ve been drafting a security document, which is something that lenders require whenever they’re lending money to a company to finance a project.”
Equally, being at such an early stage of his legal career means Eric is taking each experience as a learning curve – for example “on another matter, I’m in charge of managing the condition precedent process, these are the conditions that have to be met prior to the deal closing. I’ll regularly be liaising with several different parties (sometimes across various jurisdictions) to make sure that we’re on track to receive those documents”. He reflects on this experience, recognising that you “need strong organisational skills to manage that”.
Looking towards the future
The nature of project finance means that it’s contingent on the world around it and that’s what’s so exciting about this practice area. As Eric understands it, “the key issues facing my profession and practice area, I would say are threefold”, although this isn’t to say that these are the only challenges he’ll face in this area. He outlines how the current economic climate will inevitably affect his practice, as “banks are still lending money, but companies are naturally more reluctant to take on debt because it's more expensive than what it was previously”.
There’s another side to this coin, specifically for law firms, as Eric explains, “our clients are also struggling economically and seeing the effects of high inflation” makes winning them over in this environment a challenging task. Eric notes that because of this he’s had to master the tricky skill of “managing expectations” recognising that it’s “something that the firm does really well”.
White & Case’s relationship with the everchanging space of AI is, of course, key to the evolving practice area of project finance. It’s also something Eric sees as “an opportunity” while acknowledging that it “might be perceived as an issue”. To him, new technology offers the chance to extend the existing skill set of lawyers and free up more time for lawyers to innovate. He says: “It's getting rid of what might be perceived as the boring work that we used to do. So now we're able to focus more on the substantive stuff, which is exciting.”
Meanwhile, another topic at the forefront of this area the government’s commitment to reaching net zero, which involves balancing the greenhouse gases that enter the atmosphere with what comes out, by 2050. The ever-changing future of sustainability in the UK makes it an interesting time to be a project development lawyer. “The energy transition is especially relatable to my practice area. How are big companies diversifying? How are they ensuring that they're staying on top of market trends? How do we advise our clients on moving to more renewable energy sources?” These are all questions that Eric and his colleagues will have to answer in the coming years.
Move out of your comfort zone
When considering a career in the profession, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and feel a bit daunted by the pressure. This is something Eric is prone to himself and, as a note of comfort to aspiring lawyers reading this, he says, “it’s fine to feel uncomfortable”. By this, as he goes on to clarify, he means that “there’s feeling uncomfortable and there's feeling scared. But feeling uncomfortable means you're out of your comfort zone and that you're being pushed”. Having the drive to push yourself is a key skill for any aspiring lawyer, especially in a practice area that must embrace change and keep up with the times.
Eric also outlines some of the skills needed for a successful career in project finance. For Eric, he says “that the first is definitely attention to detail, “which is a skill that gets picked up a lot with trainees and juniors and is one you build up over time”. Working in such a wide-ranging and current sector means that there’s naturally huge variety in the work you take on, so being organised will help to manage this and prevents lawyers from feeling overwhelmed. Eric also references the importance of being able to “work efficiently as a team”.
For those who share Eric’s desire to remain uncomfortable and keep pushing, this area could bring about great success. His practice, much like that of Atticus Finch’s in To Kill a Mockingbird, is driven by passion and knowledge of the law’s intersection with real life and the unique obstacles each case, client and time brings. In his words, project finance is “market leading and very topical, so it's an exciting space to be in, but it's also definitely a challenging area of law”.