Senior competition lawyer now analysing mergers rather than advising on them
Anne MacGregor studied and first qualified in Australia, before moving to Europe in the early ‘90’s. She has had a varied career based around competition and trade law, living in Brussels and Washington and including stints at Shearman & Sterling and Linklaters. She now writes about merger control for a market intelligence service called MLex, subscribers of which include law firms, banks and hedge funds. She talked to us about her various roles and why stepping out of private practice has been a positive experience.
mtl: Please can you start with how you came to be a competition lawyer in Brussels?
Anne: After a combined Arts/Law degree at the Australian National University in Canberra, I worked briefly for the ACT Attorney General’s department for about six months and was admitted as a lawyer in New South Wales before leaving the country. I moved to Hamburg in 1991, on the back of a German Government scholarship, where I did an LLM (with a focus on EC and trade law) and improved my German. I then moved to Brussels to do a traineeship at the European Commission.
In early 1994, when my traineeship finished, I took a legal role working in the Brussels office of a regional German law firm. I was the only English native speaker in the firm and was given lots of translation work to do, some distribution agreements and a bit of competition work. My job was also to promote the firm in Brussels, and one of the firm’s partners was a member of the European Parliament. I was only nominally supervised, had to make it up as I went along but realised pretty quickly that the firm wasn’t big enough to be doing serious EC competition or trade work.
In early 1996 I therefore moved to the Brussels office of Deringer, prior to its merger with Freshfields. It was one of the larger German law firms with a smallish office in Brussels at the time but it had a lot of dynamic, high quality competition and trade work on offer, including advising the Mexican Government on its free trade agreement with the EC. I stayed there for four and a half years, at which point I moved to Washington DC.
mtl: Why did you move to the US?
Anne: Living in the US and taking the NY Bar were both things that I’d always wanted to do. As I’d had a lot of relevant experience at Deringer, I sold myself to Shearman & Sterling as a regulatory and trade lawyer and joined their trade practice in Washington, after being sponsored by them to do the New York Bar. (I’m now also registered as a foreign lawyer with the Brussels Bar and I’ve done the QLTT in England & Wales).
I stayed for just over a year in Washington and left partly as a result of the fall-out from 9/11. Shearman & Sterling was downsizing, I realised I didn’t want to live in the US long-term as I didn’t feel comfortable there and I missed Europe and Brussels. Brussels is home now. It grows on you and you can live very comfortably, with easy access to the rest of Europe, but without the dramas of being in a huge city. It’s a stimulating working and social environment and a great place to live. I moved back in February 2002 and joined Linklaters, where I just did competition work, primarily merger control notifications to the European Commission. I stayed there until March 2007.
mtl: Why the change in 2007 and how have you found it?
Anne: Most of the time I spent at Linklaters was a relatively positive experience. But I eventually left because I had been on a phase II merger case before the European Commission which was not resourced adequately within the firm. The hours were excruciating over a number of months.
One time I came out of the office at five in the morning to discover my car had been towed – unsurprisingly, because when I had illegally parked it around 10 am the day before, I had been in a big hurry to get inside the office to do a telephone conference with the client after only having slept three hours. It ended up staying in the pound for nearly two weeks because I simply had no time to retrieve it, with the result that when I finally did go to get it, I had racked up a huge fine.
1986 – 1990
Combined Arts/Law (hons) degree, Australian National University, Canberra
Worked for ACT AG’s department. Qualified in NSW
1991 – 1993
German government scholarship to study in Hamburg, LLM
Admitted in the Australian Capital Territory
1993 – 1994
Traineeship at the European Commission
QLTT and admitted in England and Wales
1995 - 1996
Worked in the Brussels office of a regional German firm
1996 – 2000
Associate, Deringer, Brussels
2000 – 2001
Took the New York Bar and worked for Shearman & Sterling, Washington, admitted in NY
2002 – 2007
Left Linklaters and started writing for MLex
In the same period, there was a really bad storm in Brussels and the roof blew off my house at about 4 am one morning. The fact that I just got up and rushed in to the office while rain was pouring into the top floor of the house and ordered my poor cousin, who was visiting me from Australia, to take care of the problem, shows how skewed my priorities had become during that time and how out of kilter my life was.
I also couldn’t go on a holiday with my family in Australia which had been booked and paid for nine months in advance. In the end my family went without me. The photos they sent me were small consolation!
After Linklaters, I planned to have some serious down-time to get over what felt like years of jet-lag and a massive sleep deficit. However, instead of doing nothing, or at least considering my options, I was immediately approached by MLex’s founder, and the idea of writing for the service really appealed to me. So within a few weeks I was doing some part-time work from home.
MLex was set up by another Australian in Brussels, who used to be a journalist at Bloomberg. Almost all law firms with any sort of European competition practice were already subscribers, and the next push was to try to attract more clients from the financial services area. That sector is primarily interested in merger coverage, rather than trade and broader antitrust. He suggested that I write for the service about the antitrust risk involved in mergers on a freelance basis. Then from September 2007, I was persuaded to go full-time.
The opportunity was unique in the sense that the company hadn’t had lawyers writing for it before, but the majority of MLex readers are competition lawyers. Our clients get access to a senior competition lawyer as part of their subscription and lawyers can make good journalists as they are usually very precise, good at writing, and they naturally scrutinise everything and test what they are writing. We are currently thinking about recruiting another mid-level competition lawyer to join my team.
I set up a merger analysis team at MLex of four people and now do jurisdictional and substantive analyses of current mergers i.e. where they will need to be notified and what the potential problems (and solutions) are. So, I no longer prepare the actual notifications themselves for acquiring parties, but instead I zero in on interesting deals and pick out the key aspects to investigate and write about. My audience is now made up of former colleagues and various finance professionals, particularly those doing merger arbitrage work.
I really enjoy the writing, the in-depth analysis and the commentary. As a company, in one sense, on shorter “it has happened” news stories, we are competing with Reuters and Bloomberg and the like to get information out quickly, but on the other hand those news services don’t offer the commentary and deeper insights that we are doing.
We are an entirely ‘off the record’ news service so in general we have excellent access to information from many sources. Even if someone wants to be quoted and would like to see their name in print, we generally don’t quote them. There are some frustrating aspects to the job in that sometimes people in the know on certain cases simply won’t talk to us about what is going on. Therefore in a worst case scenario we can be left to use only publicly available information and our own legal analysis, experience and skills to make our judgments as to what’s what. Even then though, because our journalists and lawyers have a lot of experience between them, we can still usually add value.
My hours are much saner now and I have a great deal more time to run a non-profit organisation that I co-founded in 2000 and which I feel passionately about. It’s called the Southern Cross Group (www.southern-cross-group.org) and is an advocacy and support organisation for the Australian diaspora. About one million Aussies now live outside Australia (about one in 20 of all Australians) and there are a series of common issues that concern them that we have worked on over the years and continue to be active on, for example the rights of Australians living abroad to vote in Australian elections.
Our first big success was the repeal of an archaic provision in Australian citizenship law in 2002 that had meant (since 1949) that Australians who acquired another citizenship in their overseas country of residence automatically forfeited their Australian citizenship. Since then lots of expat Aussies have been able to naturalise where they live overseas and enjoy the benefits of dual citizenship.
In 2007, after seven years of lobbying Canberra, we managed to achieve further major reforms to Australian citizenship law with the enactment of a completely fresh Australian Citizenship Act. That fixed the most obvious remaining expat citizenship dilemmas and we estimate that the new legislation provides some 100,000 people living outside Australia a new right to make applications for Australian citizenship. Since 1 July 2007 when that Act came into force, myself and other SCG volunteers have spent thousands of hours individually advising people who contact the Group on their eligibility and personally assisting them to make their citizenship applications. It’s really great when applications are approved. People are so thrilled to become Australian under the new law and often it’s a very emotional day for them when they find out.
My SCG role over the years has also shown me that the skills I’ve developed as a lawyer are very useful in an NGO lobbying context. I’ve had to draft many submissions to government advocating legislative change and also engage extensively and repeatedly with the media in order to give our campaigns momentum. The secret is to never give up and to realise that some of the things we want changed will take a long time, but will probably eventually happen, if you just keep at it. Changes of government can help!
The latest I now work is about 7pm, so my quality of life is much better, and getting away from billable hours has been great. However my work at MLex is probably not as intellectually challenging as working in private practice because the field of assessing mergers is relatively narrow and tends to get a bit repetitive. I’d like to vary the content of my work much more.
I do miss the buzz of working in a large firm, where I always found the work stimulating and the technical support and facilities amazing. I’ve had quite a few adjustments to get used to, for example a significantly lower salary. Working with journalists takes you into a parallel universe with a different work ethic and much lower pay scales.
I continually worry that we are not intellectually rigorous enough in what we put out, but for some news stories, you just have to get them out quickly. As a lawyer I want to be precise and I know who is reading our work and what they will expect. There is a continual balancing act to be done. Complicated ideas and quite sophisticated content has to be communicated in easily digestible language. And on occasions I do battle with our managing editor, who isn’t a lawyer, to try to retain certain points in my stories that he has changed or edited out. Our readership is pretty on the ball and for the most part doesn’t need things dumbed down.
I can’t see myself doing this forever, but I have learnt a lot from stepping out of private practice. I’ve had the chance to observe a small business in its early stages, and that’s been an interesting experience given that I had always worked for very established and large organisations in the past.
I’ve also been exposed to the financial services industry more and in particular hedge funds and merger arbitrage work. So I’ve been able to learn about their businesses and what interests them about merger control and that has been very useful. Although some competition lawyers in private practice do hedge fund advisory work, I hadn’t before.
I’ve come to understand that what you get out of a job, both financially and in terms of intellectual stimulation, very much depends on what you put in to it. For me the quality of life trade off in going to MLex has meant accepting for now that my work is less interesting and the financial rewards much lower. That’s not to say that there are not other non-law-firm solutions where I would feel more inspired, would be happy to work somewhat longer hours and could still enjoy reasonable quality of life but better remuneration.
mtl: Having moved around the sector a bit yourself, do you have any tips for our readers who are looking at their own careers?
Anne: I’d say that a lot of lawyers in firms can’t imagine any other existence and that you can get fairly institutionalised. Be brave. You will feel that a huge load has been lifted from your shoulders when you escape. Try to engineer your financial situation one way or another so that you have enough money in the bank to survive for at least 3 to 6 months without working at all so that you can take some serious time out after leaving a firm. Do some volunteer or NGO work. Travel around the world. Catch your breath and re-assess your life. I used the time immediately after leaving Linklaters while I was still part-time with MLex to get stuck into my Southern Cross Group work and travel around Europe and the States with my Dad.
I also think it’s good to get away from the notion that your career, and therefore you as a person, are worth less if you aren’t in private practice. Many law-firm lawyers have an over-inflated sense of self-importance and live in a very narrow reality. There are lots of other things you can do, many of them far more fun and creative and which allow you to be yourself more.
Lawyers are good at analysing, writing and digesting information and most are perfectly capable of running their own businesses if they apply themselves. Because I fell into MLex without even looking for another job when I first left Linklaters, I never really had to make up my mind back then as to what I really wanted my next move to be in the medium to long term. But gradually you do start to get a sense of what a big wide world exists outside the doors of a law firm and all the other things you could do. The knowledge that so much is possible is extremely liberating.
mtl: Thank you for your time Anne and good luck for the future.
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If you know any other lawyers who have gone and done something interesting or unusual with their lives or who have a great work/life balance then please get in touch.
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