Interview: Jacqueline Bell, Partner at Dentons, Amsterdam

The Attic recently spoke with Jacqueline Bell, currently a partner at Dentons in Amsterdam, and previously a freelance consultant with Obelisk Support.

Jacqueline trained at Norton Rose Fulbright in the aviation finance department of the London office before moving to the Singapore office to add ship and offshore finance to her skills. She then moved to Amsterdam to Allen & Overy as a senior associate in the English law banking team. Missing working as an industry specialist she set up her own consulting business in 2015, where she acted as general counsel in the banking sector, before becoming a partner at Dentons earlier this year. 

Jacqueline is also mum to two young boys and understands the juggle required to manage a successful career and participate fully in family life. Here she gives us a fascinating insight into what took her from business owner to partner in the world’s biggest law firm, what it is like to work in-house, and why UK law graduates shouldn’t feel tied to working in this country.

Tell us about your team and work at Dentons?

JB: I lead the English law banking and finance practice here at Dentons in Amsterdam. We’re still in start-up phase so it’s currently me and a senior associate in Amsterdam, but we work regularly with other English-qualified lawyers across Europe and of course in London and expect to make another hire next month.

My specific focus is on asset finance (aviation, shipping, and offshore finance) and trade commodities finance. I did all of that whilst consulting, but also picked up some totally different things in between such as development/impact finance in emerging markets, venture debt in the life sciences sector and real estate finance.

At Dentons I have the luxury of colleagues who have focused practices, so no longer need to be a generalist and have the room to steer my practice back to my roots.

What was your previous experience? Can you tell us a little about yourself?

JB: I’m a 37-year-old Scot, made up of equal parts adventurer and homebody, and also a married mum to two gorgeous boisterous wee boys. I’m also thrilled to say after starting my own business four years ago, I’m now a partner in the world’s biggest law firm.

I started my legal career doing summer placements in the good Scottish firms, but the draw of London and beyond was much more interesting to me. I trained at Norton Rose Fulbright from 2006-2008 which took me to Amsterdam and Singapore, and after qualifying into a niche team doing aviation finance I moved out to their Singapore office in 2011.

Towards the end of 2012, I returned to Europe and to Amsterdam where I took up a senior associate role with Allen & Overy as part of the English law banking team, which covered a range of lending work: asset finance, corporate finance, trade commodity finance, export finance and a touch of leveraged finance. As a result, I gained much broader experience and largely enjoyed my time there but missed the focus of being an industry specialist.

I chose to start out for myself in 2015 and began as a freelance consultant, with the goal of continuing to do the same quality of work but to have more control to pick and choose projects and timescales that appealed to me and to see if I could generate work on my own.

Freelancing gave me a peek inside multiple law firms, allowed me sit alongside the legal teams in-house at two banks and alongside the business side of an investment fund as their GC, and gave me a chance to be selective in building my own portfolio of direct clients. I also enjoyed the rush of working for myself, and working on headline-making deals from wherever I wanted, often my garden in my pyjamas!

Why Amsterdam/ Europe for work and not the UK?

JB: Why not, why the UK necessarily? That’s never been the default position for me; from the beginning, London was going to be a stepping stone for me to work abroad. I returned from Singapore to be on the same continent as my (then) fiancé and to be closer to family, but we decided not to settle in London as we had already been there and done that and after Singapore, it felt too big. In banking and especially asset finance, I had many clients at the major Dutch banks and ship / offshore companies, and of course, Amsterdam is an incredibly lively place which is small enough to cross in 20 minutes by bike. Home is still across the Channel and I love every trip back, but I’m very grateful for the lifestyle we can have in the Netherlands.

Can you tell us about the differences working in-house as opposed to back in private practice?

JB: What is a bit unusual to my career path is that I straddled both private practice and being in-house over the last 4 years. My first day as a consultant was spent at my old desk in my old team at A&O doing the exact same work but under a consultancy model.

I worked for other firms too, sometimes visibly as a ‘senior associate’ and sometimes doing drafting behind the scenes. So in that sense, I didn’t ever leave private practice, which has made my decision to work full time in a firm again an easy transition.

My experience spent in-house was an eye-opener, it made me realise that being a policy gatekeeper, one of the lines of defence, wasn’t for me as I like being the project manager, to pull together all the international input and direct transactions to fruition. Admittedly my time spent within the banks wasn’t an entirely authentic experience as I wasn’t an employee, so some of the pressures of that role didn’t reach me.

My GC role was a big change of gear as I was involved in strategy and helped form decisions with the investment team, and it was for venture debt transactions so the risk of having to rely on the legal documentation was very real. It was hard to consider going from that to anything less than a very active role.

What skills did you learn in-house that make you a better lawyer now?

JB: I have a good insight into how big banks operate, how the internal processes fit together and what challenges those individuals who instruct us face. I think I am now more commercial in my risk analysis, as ultimately the parties I deal with want to do the deal – they come to us for full information as to the risks of doing so, and to get the best legal protection against those risks.

I have also seen some deals go wrong and documentation be tested, and in this fast world of moving from one closing to the next, it’s good to stop and take stock of how much every word you draft matters.

Can you tell us more about the move from consultant to partner?

JB: As a consultant, I got very varied and unexpected opportunities and enjoyed going with the flow for a change (A&O was a quite predictable and solid deal flow with the same select group of clients). New clients seemed to stick with me so whilst it was, of course, a luxury problem to have, it was still a problem – especially after the number reached double figures and I was working round the clock. So I faced a choice between winding down a notch or two and turning down work and interesting secondment opportunities or scaling up from a one-man-band into becoming an employer. Life is hectic at home so I didn’t fancy taking on the latter, and the former would’ve frustrated me no end.

Coincidentally around this time I was approached by a former colleague who had recently moved to set up the banking practice at Dentons Amsterdam who wanted to hire me on an interim basis with a view to joining the partnership – he knew my reputation in the market and saw a fit with Dentons.  That discussion stirred something in me and I quickly found myself in two parallel partnership processes at competing firms. I think I always knew I wanted to give this a shot, and hence why I never properly stepped away from private practice. I’m three months in and really enjoying continuing the entrepreneurial side but from within a large network (you can’t find any bigger than Dentons!).

How do you balance work and your interests/responsibilities outside of work?

JB: I don’t achieve an equal balance, but I do have a balance that works for me and my family most of the time. Our kids are small still, so when needed I start working before they are up, then I block my diary from 5-9pm to get home and spend a few hours with them and log on afterwards if need be.

There isn’t much time for anything else during the week, but we make up for it in the weekends and I believe I am much more energised by this role than anything more low key I have tried; it often doesn’t feel like work.

Who are your role models?

JB: I try to find role models in the people I know personally, as I think it’s more achievable for their behaviours to influence mine – my friend Nadia who puts her needs behind others’ to work in war zones for Médecins san Frontières, the facilities manager at Dentons Amsterdam, Cor — he seems to smile every moment of every day; my husband who has a lot more patience than I do. I do like Richard Branson’s story though, really admire J.K. Rowling’s hard graft, and Jacinda Arden has such grace.

What are you most proud of across your career?

JB: Starting out on my own. It was a daunting decision to step away from the solid job security of the Magic Circle; I lost sleep over it and took three weeks to turn down an in-house role at a large bank at that time, but it’s a decision of which I’m very proud and of which I have no regrets. It kick-started my career in emerging markets too, allowing me to work on the first commercial aircraft financing in Myanmar, the financing of a forestry project in Uganda and a micro-financing transaction in Ghana.

What advice do you have for younger lawyers trying to decide what their career path might look like?

JB: Work hard and look at what the people ahead of you are doing. Don’t decide a path too far in advance; be open to all opportunities even if they’re unexpected. Don’t let a fear of failure hold you back from trying something; in our industry, fortunately, nobody’s life is at stake so at least give it a go.

Do you have any advice on skills for the workplace which you have found essential?

JB: Treat everyone in the workplace with respect – we’re all there to give a valuable contribution and no one is above anyone else.

Cut to the chase as well. The Dutch have taught me to be more frank and less apologetic when it’s not a personal issue at stake.

Any thoughts on the importance of networking?

JB: It’s key; I work in a service industry so it’s all about the people and their perception of what I have to offer, but those need to be quality connections not just an unsolicited casting of the net across LinkedIn.

I use my maiden name for work because I’m fortunate that some people remember me from my time as a junior in London. Good connections you make at any level of your career will stick – whether through providing excellent service, showing yourself to be interested and engaged in that other person, or just having a laugh together. When my partnership was announced, I received kind messages from people on the other side of the world with whom I first worked more than a decade ago.

How has developing technology affected your day to day working life?

JB: Being able to do 95% of my role from wherever I choose, on the go, is liberating. I’m reachable most hours of the waking day, but with that comes the peace of mind of seeing that everything is under control. Deals can be done much faster and more efficiently, as we have very clever automated tools at our disposal for document creation, checking and progress tracking and clients demand that now so it really opens doors for us that we can offer the latest technology to save costs. It means we have more opportunity to expose our juniors to a more interesting level of work. Dentons is a frontrunner for innovation and it was one of the deciding factors that made me choose this firm over others.

How do you think your work will be affected by Brexit?

JB: In Amsterdam, we are seeing lots of new opportunities. We expect to be very busy, with more and more businesses (and especially financial institutions) moving desks from London to Amsterdam and large financial institutions seeking our help in how to tackle the legal consequences of Brexit on their business.

How do you prepare for the future in the legal sector?

JB: I adapt. I joined a firm whose goal is to be ‘always the law firm of the future’ and which is underpromising and overdelivering on that; not only in terms of innovation but also in strategy, growth and diversification. I feel secure that I won’t be left behind, it’s mind-boggling what they have coming next!