Speaker's Corner: A global meltdown, London style

In early 2008 I did what I had been building up the courage to do for some time - I moved to London, England, joining the mergers and acquisitions group of one of the world’s largest law firms as a senior associate.

I was not unhappy on Bay Street, however I needed a change in life generally - to shock my system out of its complacency. So I sold my house and car, gave away most of my possessions and moved to London for an indeterminate period of time.

The most striking things that I observed upon my arrival were (a) the fact that thousands of people had been organized to protest the decision to no longer permit people to openly drink alcohol on the Tube (oh, England, how I adore you) and (b) that the downturn in the global economy had hit England much more severely than it had hit Canada.

The BBC and newspaper stands across the city inundated us with headlines of job losses occurring in the tens of thousands, the radical downturn in the housing market, that one national financial institution or another had gone or was about to go under unless the English Treasury provided a bailout on some epic scale, and so on.  Doom and gloom, it quickly became apparent, was the mood in London.

However, upon arrival at my new office, I was pleased to learn that my department had hired, in addition to me, another 15 or so associates, a good many of whom were non-Brits. The firm, we were told, had to grow since 2007 had been a year in which the associates had been burned out due to the incredible amount of M&A activity that had taken place.

I made friends very quickly with both English people and other ex-pats - Aussies, Kiwis, Irishmen and other Canadians - who, like me, were new to London and were looking for a social circle. In short order my alcohol consumption level skyrocketed (purely just an effort to fit in, I assure you), after several near misses, I finally got the hang of looking right first when crossing the road, and I stopped mentally converting the cost of everything to Canadian dollars, thus doing away with the repeated dropping of the jaw that is felt with each conversion.

And I was busy at work. After eight years practising general corporate/commercial law, it was wonderful to focus purely on M&A - to get intense experience in one specific area. I worked on complex global transactions of a size that rarely occur in Canada. Eventually I was asked to also join the firm’s funds structuring and formation practice group.

I did so enthusiastically, my history as a generalist causing me to want to practise more than the one area of corporate law (the fundamental skills of critical analysis, drafting acumen and a willingness to learn quickly really are portable, wouldn’t you say).

I quickly came to appreciate the attitude that working on the weekend is done only as a last resort and the expectation that all of one’s vacation - in my case, all glorious 26 days a year of it - was to be taken.  So I worked hard during the week and then jetted off to places I had always dreamed of seeing - Paris, Berlin, Prague,

Amsterdam, southern Spain, Rome, and so on - at least once a month, sometimes for a weekend, sometimes for a week. I wound up in almost 25 different countries during my time away from Canada.

However, as several projects kept me busy, it was becoming apparent that many of my colleagues were not.

A process started last summer whereby projects that were in the pipeline were not materializing, sometimes because the client was not sure it would proceed with a deal because of the economic uncertainty and other times, more scarily, because credit, which had been so freely available in 2007, was scarce; suddenly lenders had become nervous about parting with their cash or, even worse, were undercapitalized and simply not in a position to lend at all. Teams within my practice group that had been built to work on specific projects were disbanded as potential deals began to fall apart at an alarming rate.

Even though things were already poor, they got noticeably worse in the autumn: Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., fell and credit became even harder to find. The utilization rate in my department in November and December was astoundingly low - I won’t even write how low it was.

The chatter among associates was of how little people were doing (not including time on YouTube and Facebook). Still, I continued to hum along right up until I came back to Canada for the Christmas holidays. And we all hoped that 2009 would bring better news, notwithstanding the forecasts that were suggesting a prolonged downturn that had yet to bottom out.

Then, in the first week of January we had heard that another large law firm was commencing a consultation process with a view to terminate 10 per cent of its associates.

That signalled a real awakening among associates in my office - it was the first we had heard of one of the large international firms doing a mass cull. And then the rumours, both substantiated and unsubstantiated, of layoffs - redundancies, as the English say - at countless large firms in London started coming fast and furious. All anyone could talk about was the inevitability of redundancies at our shop. 

Three weeks into January I got a call from the head of my department. He asked that I come down to one of the boardrooms. I suspected what was about to happen, and knew what was going to happen when upon arrival to the boardroom I was introduced to ‘Luke from HR.’ It was an interesting experience to be laid off.

After they did the deed, including letting me know that I would get my contractual entitlement plus all of my costs to get back to Canada (the well-founded assumption being that landing another job in London was next to impossible), I let them know that, while I had thought it may not happen to me since I was so intimately involved in a project at that time, I did not begrudge the decision, knowing that it was not personal and related to circumstances beyond the control of any of us.

So I travelled around Germany,  explored Morocco,  cycled for a week in the mountains in Italy, wrote the exam to become qualified as a solicitor in England and Wales, spent weeks discovering as many nooks and crannies of London as I could (and still only scratched the surface of that majestic city), and  considered a potential opportunity in Bermuda. 

But eventually I decided that I had satisfied the restlessness that had caused me to move in the first place. It is wonderful being back at Davis LLP, the place I consider my professional home. I have returned as a better, more confident, lawyer.

However, more importantly, I am fulfilled on a personal level and know well that if I find myself in a place in life with which I am not comfortable, I can go about making the changes that are needed, no matter how drastic, to keep life interesting.

Justin Mooney is an associate at Davis LLP. He can be reached at [email protected].

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