[span style="line-height: 16px;"]Macleod Dixon LLP hasn’t expanded in an ordinary way, choosing “challenging” areas of the world such as Russia, Kazakhstan, and Venezuela to open new offices. After 110 years, the firm’s Caracas, Venezuela office has become the second-largest law firm in that country. Managing partner Elisabeth Eljuri talks to
They decided to open in Caracas in 1997, the decision was made in Canada. I was approached very early on, maybe when the office had been open four or five months to join. I had been almost 10 years in a major international firm, Baker & McKenzie, here in Venezuela and had also worked in a couple of their U.S. offices. . . . I ended up joining early 1998.
At the time, when the office opened, which would be traditional for any firm opening in a foreign country, they sent in a Canadian resident managing partner. As the office grew, we started off four people including him, Glenn [Faass], myself and a couple of other Venezuelan lawyers, and now we have over 100 people; total professionals is close to 60, and the rest is staff.
After a number of years, the office in Canada felt it was time for Glenn to move on to somewhere else, and, two, the office was quite large and independent enough to have its own managing partner from within. Being the most senior of the partners here, and for whatever other reasons (I had already been in one of the firm’s two management committees for three years.) . . . Then they thought that it would be the natural evolution for me to become the managing partner here, so I have been for the last two or so years.
How do you split your time between practising and management duties?
Before being made managing partner, and still today, I have one of the largest portfolios of the partners here and one of the largest worldwide. I have a very active clientele and very demanding large files that I work on.
I certainly didn’t want to give that up. So what I did was I made the commitment to do that, but my role [as managing partner] probably only consumes 30 per cent of my time. The other 70 per cent gets allocated between actual client files and my traditional marketing, publications, international conferences — all the things you do as part of your practice —continuing preparation, education, training of associates. . . . I try to do it in an organized way.
It takes at least two full hours of every day of issues that I need to deal with. But I have decentralized some things where I don’t believe I am essential. So I’m not signing cheques, I’m not picking the colour of the carpet, I’m not dealing with details on treasury unless they’re very significant. . . . I have a senior role in recruiting support when we are recruiting somebody senior but I don’t get involved in the normal run-of-the-mill recruiting.
I participate across the board in many things but see the role mainly as one of the leaders of the office, to make sure we’re always going in the right direction, to address the more sensitive issues, and to serve as a connection among all the partners to make sure that everybody that has something assigned within management that things are getting done. . . .
Are the lawyers in your office Canadian or local or a combination of the two?
Obviously we opened with a Canadian managing partner and we started off more as a satellite office. But today we are a very independent, truly Venezuelan firm. Of the 106 employees, the 106 are Venezuelan. Of the 46 lawyers we have, they are all Venezuelan, admitted in Venezuela. Therey are obviously many educated abroad and bilingual, but our core practice is in Venezuela.
What is the focus of the legal work in the Caracas office?
Our office evolved from being strictly the Venezuelan office to the regional base for Latin American work run by Macleod Dixon. . . . Obviously we do a lot of work in Venezuela as it is a very prolific country in terms of legal issues — either because of the constant change in law or the $100 oil — and, being the fifth-largest producing country in the world, there is a lot of investment and a lot of projects here, $3- to $4-billion oil projects going on.
That’s been a very important part of our work but there’s also a percentage of our work that is dedicated at being a leading Latin American energy and resources firm in particular. In Venezuela we are definitely full-service, but when you look at what we do in Colombia, or large projects in Mexico or in Peru, Guyana, Trinidad, or wherever it is, that is work that is primarily bringing in that international component of oil and gas, mining, or electricity at a very high level.
And working with local counsel in those jurisdictions to support us but we bring in the international expertise. . . . In a way, we are serving the role other American or U.K. firms are serving, meaning we’re not competing with the Colombian firms. I see it more as doing the international transactional type work that is done by a firm in Houston or Calgary, for instance.
So it’s been a great opportunity. Some projects have been two or three years and humungous, and some projects have been smaller, but we’ve been pretty much all over the region and very fascinating things.
What type of client would use the services of Macleod Dixon in Caracas?
We act for a large number of Fortune 100 companies from around the world. . . . More than 90 per cent of our clientele are multinationals. Irrespective of the sector we’re in, they’re multinationals doing business in this region, and generally we have an advantage because they feel very comfortable with a North American firm.
It’s not just the language skills. It’s the delivery, it’s the service, the way you operate, the way you write the opinions and the memos. . . . And [clients] have found it very attractive, which I guess is the reason why in less than 10 years . . . we became the second largest law firm in the country. [We] act for Chevron, PepsiCo, huge Asian companies like CNPC, the Chinese national oil company, major pharmaceutical companies (Abbott), airlines, banks (CitiBank).
In any industry we have these marquee clients. And because Venezuela is such an energy country, some of our huge clients are in fact coming from the oil world — BP, Ecopetrol, Petrobras, Chevron. In terms of Canada, we’ve acted for Petro-Canada here until they left Venezuela about a year ago. We’ve acted for other smaller junior Canadian companies, a lot of them in the mining business and others that have ventured into the oil business in Colombia. We’ve acted for Precision Drilling, a very large oil-services company.
The Canadian portion of our portfolio may be somewhere around five or six per cent [on the Venezuelan side]. The Colombian work is a lot of Canadian-listed companies investing in Colombia. So maybe total 15 per cent is Canadian-based revenue. But the other 85 per cent comes from around the world, a lot from the U.S. and Europe but also Asia and Latin America. It’s very diversified.
What makes your office attractive to clients?
We’ve built a reputation as a little hub for energy and natural resources expertise. What clients have liked is that even though we bring that very high level of North American-type expertise, it’s being provided by people who are completely fluent and knowledgeable of Spanish and the civil law system, which is the prevailing system all around South American and Latin America, with the exception of the Caribbean islands and Guyana.
Everyone else is Spanish-speaking — except Brazil — or at least civil law. We have a small office in Brazil in an alliance with one of the largest firms in Brazil. So we also have a presence there, and obviously for Brazil we would use that as a way to provide the services.
How would you characterize the relationship of your office with the firm’s offices in Canada?
We are one firm. It’s not a franchise where you just use the name or something. There are’s about 100 equity partners around the world, including the Canadian offices, and all of us together we meet at least once a year and sometimes twice a year.
We truly work as a partnership when it comes to the major issues. Mostly, each office is allowed to be run pretty independently because every office has its own market, its own reality, its own compensation market, its own clients that have been generated. . . . In a situation where you have an office that you open from scratch, and it grew organically on its own by attracting talent here locally . . . you tend to be quite independent in terms of running the files and all that. I think that’s good.
As a managing partner, I speak to the other managing partners worldwide every month and then maybe once a year we have a meeting. Everything we do is a matter of style or firm policy is consistent with the worldwide firm policy. We are not adopting policies here that are completely different from what they would do in Calgary unless it’s something very local or very basic. Maybe the way you dress here on casual day is not the same way you dress there but we still both have a casual day on Friday.
It’s a good relationship and we definitely feel like one firm but they also allow us to run quite independently.
You’ve worked in many countries, what would you say is the most important trait as a lawyer in dealing with lawyers, clients, and people in general in foreign countries?
It’s not the just the language skills, although they are important. I think it’s the ability to be a little bit more bicultural — whether it’s the way you communicate, whether it’s the way you express in writing. Anglo-Saxons are used to a very direct answer to a specific question. Sometimes people have a lot of trouble in this culture of being straightforward, direct, to the point.
I think the best trait for a lawyer is to have that ability to communicate appropriately depending on your forum and the culture. . . . The other ones, of course, are the ability to adapt and the willingness to travel. You can’t really have an international practice with a reluctance to travel. And, as the years go by, you get tired of it.
There was a particular project I did in Mexico for three years. One of those years I spent 140 days there, but they were never more than five days in a row. So go there, come back, go there, come back. . . . I was on an airplane almost every single week. Some people really enjoy that and they tend to have a very international practice. The less you enjoy it, the less likely you will have a successful international practice.
What are the more challenging aspects of running a firm in Venezuela?
In Venezuela today you have to have the ability to be very independent and low-profile in terms of politics. Regardless of how you feel personally, you have to make sure your firm is run and perceived as independent and solid legal advice to international companies. . . . It’s also a challenge because there have’s been very emotional moments over the last 10 years: major demonstrations, referendums, attempted coups, political problems.
And all of that process — people, including your employees, take positions and you have to respect their rights, freedom of expression, freedom to express their political desires. . . .We didn’t anticipate that when [the Caracas office] opened, but 95 per cent of our history has been under the 10 years of this [Chávez] administration. Let’s call it a more restricted economy with exchange controls and a lot of things that go with that. However, we feel that we’ve been very successful and we’re very satisfied with the investment we made. But that has been a big challenge.
My biggest challenge over the last year has been the attraction and retention of talent. . . .We’ve become a great place and lots of people want to work here. Above that, we pay at the top level of the market. So we don’t lose people to other competitors and things; what we do lose is people to overseas. A lot of the younger generations have lost a lot of faith in living in Venezuela.
To convince people to not take that job they’re offering themyou in the U.S. or Canada or Europe but stay here and run the risk when you have a small child or whatever, it’s irresponsible to try and tell them that. But we need to try and retain our talent and we need to do it creatively by showing them that we’ve been able to succeed and they will be able to succeed if they stay here long enough. So that’s the retention part.
The attraction part is we ask our young lawyers who haven’t done their graduate studies overseas to go and do it at some point. So they go do it and then they don’t want to come back. . . . People love it here but this is the generation we’re living in. It’s one of the biggest challenges, no doubt, because we don’t hire just anyone off the street.
We want people who are top of their class, bilingual, outgoing, fun to work with, team players — it’s a long list. . . . Unfortunately I have to get more involved in recruiting than I would want to. You need to put all the efforts you can to make sure someone says, “OK, I’m going to do this.”
As the only woman to lead an established law firm in Latin America, what were some of the hurdles you had to overcome?
First of all, this is something that speaks very well of Macleod Dixon. When I joined the compensation committee, in 2002, for three years, I was the first woman Macleod Dixon had ever appointed to a management committee. I thought, that’s great, not only the fact of being a woman but also being fairly young. I felt appreciated and that this firm didn’t have any concern about appointing a woman in a senior position or a young person in a senior position, and that’s wonderful.
And then, my appointment as managing partner reaffirmed that from the firm’s perspective. In terms of what it means in Venezuela and in Latin America, I think that, first of all, this is probably in part the natural evolution of people’s own careers. I wasn’t appointed as managing partner because I’m a woman. I think it’s because I, along with a group of people who founded a firm and in 10 years we’re number two in the country but in reputation and rankings we’re many times number one, and it’s been a huge and successful story. That was the result of it, not that I was a woman.
After the appointment, I got a lot of e-mails and contacts from women around the region — Argentina and Mexico and whatever. . . . And the amount of young women in Mexico telling me there are hardly any women in Mexican law firms; there are no women partners in a major Mexican firm — same in Chile, historically, although it’s changed a bit. So you realize that in a way it’s a great thing because it sends a great message and it tells people it can be done.
You’ll find two types of women lawyer leaders: the ones that say, “You have to ensure there are quotas and percentages and we have to represented and all that, irrespective of the actual success of women lawyers.” . . . Then there’s the other type, which I belong to, which is that you just have to not think about it as a limitation or an issue. Sure enough, in my first firm where I worked almost 10 years, there was only one woman partner, and that was about year six after I joined that they made her partner. So I joined a firm where I knew all the partners were men but I never felt that was going to be an issue. And I’ve never done anything assuming it can’t be done. . . .
The challenge comes with primarily not marriage but maternity. So what I did was have most of my career first and then I got married and had my first kid. I was pregnant at 35. . . . I had already done my career by the time I had my first son. Now I’m pregnant with my second, actually. . . . You have to find a way how it works for you because once you have small children it does become difficult. . . .
How old are you now?
I am 38. When I was made partner at Macleod — I joined in May 1998 and made partner in February ’99 — I was the youngest partner that I think they ever made. That’s also in part because, people here, you tend to go from high school into law school. Law school here is five years, so you graduate a little younger. . . . So, in addition, I did my LLM right after law school, so I was kind of done with everything at 22, which is not standardnormal. . . .
That obviously had a consequence. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing or that people should try it. It’s not something to be proud of; it was just the circumstances. It gave me an opportunity to start my career early and do things. By 38, I can have my second child and not be worried about it.
What advice would you give to young lawyers starting out?
In Venezuela, I would say never underestimate the need to be completely bilingual, bicultural, to graduate top of your class, to get a scholarship to do a graduate program. Do all those things that will make you excel, because the competition is fierce. It’s much worse and it will get worse every year. If you are able to do that, and you do do that, then I think the rest I would tell them is make sure you want to be a lawyer. And if you want to be a lawyer, be sure you actually want to work in a law firm.
Life in a law firm is not for everyone. In a normal job, if you’re dying with a cold and you’re pregnant and you can’t get any medicine, you’d be at home. In a law firm, you’re here at work. . . . I don’t find it stressful. I find it challenging. I can be working on a very difficult transaction but I don’t let that stress me. That is not in everybody’s nature. . . . So that would be the other piece of advice: be sure this is really what you want to do. Especially for women, I think, it’s a little harder.
What do you like best about your job?
I like the variety and the high-level discussions and work that I get. I don’t do anything boring. I don’t do anything too repetitive. I get very challenging work and get exposed to a lot of very smart people — not just lawyers but everybody that I’m dealing with.
I work on some of the most significant and largest projects wherever I’m at, so you get exposed to things that when they’re done are going to be headline news or are going to be very important to investments or new deals or mergers and acquisitions or whatever it is. I like that. I like the fact that it’s very dynamic and non-repetitive.
A highly rewarding career over the years is also well compensated. I hear a lot of people in a lot of other places and other careers that are demotivated because of compensation. That doesn’t generally happen to a partner in a law firm.
I think what’s unique what we’ve done here in Caracas is that we’ve created a North American-type practice of Latin American work in Latin America. That’s what no one else to our knowledge has done: to run this international work for the region out of a Latin American jurisdiction as opposed to running it out of New York or Toronto or Calgary. That is quite unique and is a tribute to the firm that they felt they had good talent in this office and that was a good place to support.
It’s also a tribute to the people here that have managed to build themselves a reputation beyond their borders. It was in part because of the changes in Venezuela over the last few years. We needed to diversify our risk, our projects. One way to diversify is to go international, so it’s worked very well and we’re very happy with it.