fivehundred magazine > Editors' views > Iberian nights (and days)

Iberian nights (and days)

Continuing her European tour, EMEA editor Ella Marshall reflects on Ronaldo, cherrypicking, and changing networking practices in Portugal

Last month, I spent some time in Lisbon to attend the GC Powerlist Iberia (Portugal) and meet with several law firms ahead of The Legal 500’s next EMEA guide.

For the converted, I don’t need to proselytise on what a fantastic city Portugal’s capital is, something that has been recognised by the many multinational companies that have established a base there (and elsewhere in Portugal) over recent years, lured by the various business-friendly initiatives introduced since the 2008 financial crisis. Not to mention the ultra-high-net-worth individuals who have been drawn to the country due to Portugal’s favourable Golden Visa programme, which has proven popular with luminaries from the French film industry as well as high-profile Brazilian entrepreneurs and a number of Chinese investors. And that’s before you take into consideration the many tourists that flock to the city to enjoy the weather, food, and the sights (the castle is well worth the trek).

Indeed, the increasing interest in the nation’s sporting endeavours over the years has transformed the country’s hospitality industry with a number of new hotels springing up in the city, including the Pestana CR7 hotel, which is a partnership between the hotel chain and Portugal’s favourite son and, arguably, its most famous export, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Incidentally, my time in Portugal coincided with the culmination of the inaugural Nations League, which saw a Ronaldo-captained Portugal beat the Dutch in the final.

At this point, I’d like to make clear that the introduction of football isn’t purely tangential (or self-indulgent by the writer). In fact, football, or more broadly sport, came up frequently in my meetings with firms. For clarification’s sake, I’d like to note that it wasn’t due to any instigation on my part, even though my non-working hours were spent consuming as much of the French Open, Nations League, NBA finals and general off-season transfer speculation as I could absorb. No, it appears that the business of sport is providing plenty of fodder for law firms. This wasn’t just confined to football either, with judo and surfing also providing fertile ground for firms to get to grip with in order to ride the waves in these areas with fees getting ‘hi-ya’ (this latter statement is unsubstantiated).

One other hot topic was the concept of ‘cherrypicking’, i.e. assembling a group of superstar lawyers that are, crucially, drawn from different firms to form a new team, much like the ‘All-star’ line-up. During discussions at the GC Powerlist, it became apparent some in-house counsel were increasingly pondering whether this was a viable model to use for bet-the-company-type matters. Interestingly, private practice lawyers made the very valid point that, for GCs increasingly operating under significant cost constraints and ever-tighter budgets, this arrangement is not workable on a day-to-day basis.

The practice of cherrypicking in Portugal has been attributed to the rise of a more sophisticated in-house counsel over the last decade (something that isn’t unique to Portugal alone). GCs and other in-house lawyers have increasingly made the move from private practice positions with some of the largest firms in Portugal to corporate counsel roles, compared to starting their careers in in-house positions as was the case in bygone years. As a consequence, in-house counsel have informed views and in-depth knowledge of the key players in a small market. Not just this, but the evolution of the GC role has meant it is no longer the end goal, with individuals striving for CEO positions and other senior board roles.

Another interesting theme that emerged was the changing nature of legal networking. Increasingly pressed for time and keen to squeeze some exercise into their day, lawyers are (apparently!), in an effort to maximise face time, now joining their clients for lunchtime workouts. Spinning clearly equates to winning, and not just in the fitness stakes. Quite how much gets discussed when you’re panting for breath and trying to gulp down air is questionable, but those who get a sweat on together appear to build a stronger bond. It is certainly at a slightly higher octane level than doing business on the golf course. Despite this enthusiasm for clean living though, it didn’t appear to put too many people off toasting their success at the GC Powerlist event held at the Palácio do Governador hotel.

So, ultimately, my takeaways from the trip were the increasing importance of sport to the Portuguese legal landscape. Whether that be joint ventures with high-profile athletes, needing to know your yellow belt from your black belt, or just getting your kicks on to keep in touching distance with clients, for now, it looks like this is something Portuguese firms are going to have to run with.