Interview with: Inês Sequeira Mendes, Managing Partner

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Abreu Advogados

Abreu Advogados’ Managing Partner addresses the present and future challenges and how the firm has been helping its Clients overtake them

What do you see as the main points that differentiate [law firm name] from your competitors?

Abreu Advogados is a big four independent law firm with over 30 years of experience in the Portuguese market, navigating in tomorrow´s sectors and industries. As a full-service law firm, Abreu is recognized as the 11th fastest growing Portuguese firm by The Lawyer Euro 100, with 51% growth in 5 years, unprecedented for a Portuguese law firm, as indicated by Inês Sequeira Mendes, Managing Partner.

Abreu has been consistent in reaffirming the values that are the solid foundation of the firm, and since 2015, Abreu is the only Law Firm in Portugal certified as B Corp, and as such. “Serving as an example in the construction of a culture that values, supporting and promoting best practices at a social, economic and environmental level”, explains Inês Sequeira Mendes.

In 2021, Inês Sequeira Mendes has succeeded Duarte de Athayde as managing partner of Abreu Advogados. During her mandate, Sequeira Mendes will continue the sustained growth strategy that Abreu has been developing nationally and internationally. The firm has continuously attracted strategic opportunities for all clients in key areas such as Corporate and M&A, Tax, Litigation and Competition.

Abreu invests in multidisciplinary, borderless teams that tackle increasingly complex transactions, breaking down barriers and established business models. Either from Portugal or internationally, clients consistently choose Abreu to deal with international transactions across Portuguese African speaking countries, particularly Angola and Mozambique. The teams hold a high degree of specialization in key industries for the Portuguese and African economies, such as Energy and Natural Resources, Real Estate, Banking, Technology, Life Sciences, Projects, Tourism and Hospitality, with dedicated key partners in different sectors.

Abreu is also recognized by our work with Private Clients. In July 2021, Chambers & Partners distinguished Abreu at a team and individual level in the Private Wealth Law category, becoming the only independent Portuguese Law Firm to accomplish such milestone.

“I believe that our culture of transparency is one of our main differentiators. Transparency in the way we interact with clients, in every aspect, such as costs, the team members involved in the matters, cybersecurity policies, etc., mainly because we are certified in ISO 9001, so we have to be 100% compliant”, says Inês Sequeira Mendes.

Which practices do you see growing in the next 12 months? What are the drivers behind that?

There are five practice areas and sectors that I would like to highlight as essential for the coming years: M&A, Restructuring & Insolvency, Tax and Technology & Cybersecurity.

After the first quarter of 2022 the market was hit by the unrest caused by the late February start of the Ukrainian war following the Russian invasion. The unrest consequently caused, the hike in energy prices, inflation and the fast growth of interest rates impacted the remaining quarters with a reduction in the number of M&A operations and a lower volume as to its value. Portuguese companies are indeed facing the unique chance to reposition their business operations and growth.

Over the next 2 years, M&A transaction should register higher volumes, although depending on specific factor, such as: Curbing the inflation curve, the interest rates, the energy price and concerns of security of supply and hopefully the much-sought end of the war in Ukraine.

Other relevant factors influencing M&A operations are expected to be pending and postponed operations due to Covid-19 that may now take place; venture capital investments; distressed assets sale; specific sectors which will benefit from the capital injection via the Recovery and Resilience Plan, such as technology, telecommunications and infrastructure; and structural reforms that may lead to an increase in Direct Foreign Investment.

Markets may be underestimating the impact of high interest rates on many leveraged borrowers, which aren’t immediately draining on cash flow but take a cumulative toll over several quarters. Restructuring activity typically involves significant changes to the organizational and financial structure of a company, often to address financial difficulties or improve competitiveness.

Some common forms of restructuring include mergers and acquisitions, divestitures, spin-offs, and debt restructuring. Despite some positive economic indicators, such as low unemployment rates and strong consumer spending, there are still many unknowns about the future of the global economy. This uncertainty could lead some companies to pursue restructuring to improve their financial stability and resilience. Many companies have taken on high levels of debt in recent years, and some may need to restructure to address their debt burden and improve their financial health.

Additionally, It is expected that 2023 will be the year that Portugal that will benefit significantly from the economic boost brought by the Recovery and Resilience Plan which did not have an actual material impact in 2022.

What’s the main change you’ve made in the firm that will benefit clients?

At Abreu, the client experience can be analyzed from the point of view of efficiency and speed at which our services are provided. Using an efficient CRM allows us to find the most targeted and strategic information so that our teams can assist their clients in anticipating obstacles or finding business opportunities. The more information we gather about the clients and their activity, the more personalized and engaging the client’s interactions become. This way we are able to find a basis for approaching our client’s needs whilst shrinking the non-billable hours by spending fewer resources on time-intensive administrative tasks.

An additional example is the speed with which we are able to deliver billing information requested by clients. It’s not just about issuing an invoice, but developing concrete analysis and specific reports tailored to each clients or each invoicing platform. Quick access to information, well-defined processes and well-prepared management teams proved to be fundamental. Client’s procurement teams have evolved immensely in the last decade and run almost parallel to the relationship between GC and Abreu’s lawyers. Knowing how to live up to these requirements is part of the overall service provided by Abreu and shows the importance of management teams.

The benefits that Abreu has registered in the efficient management of the data is intrinsically linked to a faster access to relevant information, in order to make the right decisions, namely, in the search for pricing patterns. The consequent profitability analysis that can be performed (by the minute) allows for more targeted proposals built on history (and combined with some prospective, naturally). This allows not only to understand the client’s perspective but also to adjust the teams internally for the improvement of profitability and to increase the efficiency of our service delivery.

Another dimension on which the firm has been changed regards People management. Knowing that a generational renovation is essential for the continued success of any firm, Abreu proactively engages with younger lawyers. With a unique perspective on careers and success in life and in the office, Abreu examined the market in order to adapt our people management system according to the ongoing generational shift, resulting in the creation of The Happiness Hub, aimed at monitoring and supporting actions of the organizational culture.

Abreu successfully identified long term protocols and created internal policies directly intended to improve work-life balance. Abreu developed a set of internal initiatives based on a holistic vision of wellbeing, with the mission to care for the physical, emotional and psychological health of all employees, inside and outside the office, breaking barriers and establishing a unifying link between all teams.

The Happiness Hub is the area entirely dedicated to the promotion and active monitoring of the well-being of all employees, through monitoring and support actions to the organizational culture and climate. This is a reflection of an internal process, which reflects a generalized understanding by all partners to maintain the high level of Abreu’s retention rate (currently at 82%) which required the entire firm act under a unique understanding: the well-being of each and every one is the key.

Is technology changing the way you interact with your clients, and the services you can provide them?

Absolutely. Abreu has developed TOM (Time. Optimal. Manager.), a global eSignature platform to accelerate agreements, reduce manual tasks, enable remote working conditions and automate interactions with clients, employees and partners. TOM is a robot that automates the consultation and sharing of notifications from the CITIUS and SITAF portals and through which Abreu has optimized the work and time of its teams. TOM automates repetitive and time-consuming tasks, performs tasks autonomously, such as consulting deadlines and collecting dispersed information, aggregating everything in a single document. So far, it has maximized time management by about 80% and reduced the possibility of error in these proceedings.

In the past 18 months, it is also worth highlighting the increase of the internal usage of e-discovery tool, namely Luminance, with the adoption rate spreading among teams and projects. This AI-driven system allows our teams to work collectively in a secure manner on large sets of documents in order to analyze, filter and find crucial information in your documents and contracts. This tool has had a tremendous impact on the quality of results and also efficiency wise, benefiting, at first hand, our clients. By navigating the learning curve, costs are already decreasing for the client, making Abreu’s proposals much more competitive.

Besides the impact of the usage of the e-discovery tool, which brought to light the ability to offer better, faster and cheaper services to our clients, data analysis has made it possible to anticipate trends in demand for legal services. A good example in the last 18 months was the identification of an increase in demand for services related to crypto-assets, both by individuals in terms of taxation, and by companies looking to establish themselves in Portugal or even by incumbents. This analysis led to the presentation of opportunities to the Fintech team and the team’s strategic plan was jointly adapted, resulting in a chain of short-term actions such as: active participation in various generalist and more specific media (such as Coindesk), decision on online commercial investments to promote the team internationally (Chambers’ global fintech guide), proposal to open a fintech category in Chambers’ research process (already ongoing) and holding several international roadshows. The data, combined with Abreu’s innovative culture, result in an unparalleled ability to act, which has earned Abreu a top spot in the fintech sector.

Can you give us a practical example of how you have helped a client to add value to their business?

Abreu´s successfully implemented strategy has been to continue to be disruptive and challenge the status quo when delivering solutions.

As the EU moved forward with a general digital finance package, NFT´s are likely to fall under the general definition of crypto assets. Far from operating in a regulated industry, Fintech companies looking into developing businesses eventually collided with the highly regulated sectors as Financial and Banking.

Abreu’s advice on digital assets quickly expanded to high net worth clients and, subsequently, to companies trading in digital assets, using blockchain technology. Abreu quickly deepened its knowledge in this sector lacking in legislative framework. The challenge was clear: to invest in a niche sector with the potential to disrupt traditional business models. Abreu’s core is deeply non-conformist and there was no doubt about diving into what is now the most innovative sector in the global legal sector.

As this is an innovative sector with regulatory loop holes in Portugal and Europe, it was necessary to gather internal and external expertise (consultants and referrals) to help us build a benchmark of best practices. Once the foundation for a new team was laid, the team became a close partner to enthusiastic clients in order to better understand their business goals, identify obstacles and (re)think long lasting regulatory compliant solutions. Consequently, a symbiotic relationship between Clients and lawyers was formed.

Once the grounds were laid, Abreu advised SCML on the creation and launch of the “Artentik | NFTs for good causes” platform of SCML. Artentik is an NFT`s marketplace, registered on the Ethereum blockchain network, linked to images belonging to SCML’s art collection, relics, reliquaries, sculptures or artefacts and other objects belonging to its cultural heritage, and authenticated by Santa Casa da Misericordia de Lisboa. Artentik results from a joint venture between SCML and the Delaware company Boloro Ltd.

The original features of Artentik make this project the first project of its kind to be implemented in Portugal and represents a step forward on the EU´s vision on whether a specific regime for NFT’s is necessary.

To enable the construction of the business model, the team – made up of senior and junior lawyers with different specializations, focused on elaborating a special regime – gathered all the pieces of knowledge and put together a proposal for a business model and use of the service.
The launch of this platform provided not only a learning experience for the benefit of the client but also to strengthen the Fintech team, which is now fully prepared to keep up with the growth of clients in this area and provide innovative legal services.

Are clients looking for stability and strategic direction from their law firms – where do you see the firm in three years’ time?

Abreu Advogados has seen positive results through consistency whilst powering the strategy initiated four years ago, focused on growth by gaining market share at a national level and with a clear vision of an international project for Portuguese-speaking countries. This strategy started with the change of brand, headquarters and hiring rainmakers of high recognition in the Portuguese market and with international projection.

Continuously strengthened, our teams are attentive and already working with what will be the great challenges of the future in the area of technology, namely, digitalization, robotics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality. Considered a leading tech firm in the Finance, Fintech and TMT areas, our teams have analyzed the consequences not yet addressed of different corporate models related to cryptocurrency and blockchain. Abreu helps find solutions that ensure compliance with the applicable legislation on data protection and cybersecurity.

The goal has been achieved: For the past 5 years, Abreu’s reputation grew with international rankings, having been considered by The Lawyer as Highly Commended Law Firm of the Year Iberia 2020 and shortlisted for the FT Innovative Lawyers 2022 (in three different categories), with law students, who consider Abreu the best law firm to work since 2019, and regarding employees, with the internal engagement rate growing by 40%.

Our vision is to continue to be an increasingly resilient firm, prepared for the world’s challenges alongside our clients.