Frances Gerrard, a member of CMS’s Corporate and M&A team in Prague, is a long way from her home in Australia. We spoke to her about the path that brought her to the Czech capital.
CEELM: Run us through your background and how you ended up in your current role with CMS in Prague.
Frances: I went to law school in Australia and took on my first graduate legal role in 2008 at Dawson Harford & Partners, a boutique corporate and commercial law firm in Auckland, New Zealand, starting as a trainee while working towards and finishing my admissions exams. Although I grew up in Australia, my family has very strong ties to New Zealand and I spent a great deal of time there over the years. In late 2010 I moved in-house in Sydney with Metminco Limited, a mining exploration company with operations in Chile and Peru, again focusing primarily on corporate and commercial matters and M&A. Throughout those years, I spent a lot of time travelling to Europe, mostly to visit the Alps over the European winter, and a move to Europe was always in the back of my mind. It’s not uncommon for Australian-qualified lawyers to explore and take opportunities in London; however, with plentiful M&A opportunities, a unique emerging market feel, and offering a difficult cultural experience, Central Europe was more on my radar. I came across an online advertisement for what eventually turned into my current role current while I was working in Australia and thought it could be a perfect fit. As luck would have it, our managing partner, Helen Rodwell, is also Australian, and it didn’t take much for her to sell Prague and the opportunities at CMS. I joined the firm in January 2012.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Frances: My practice focuses primarily on acting for international investors (strategics and private equity) on acquisitions and disposals across Central & Eastern Europe. I specialize in private M&A, often on large-scale cross border transactions – managing the deal process from Day 1 through closing. I also routinely act for a number of insurers on the provision of warranty and indemnity insurance across the region. CMS has a fantastic breadth of presence and expertise across CEE and I work closely and in parallel with my colleagues in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Romania, and Hungary (to name a few!) who are invaluable in the entire process.
Although I am based in Prague, the clients that I work with are based anywhere from London to New York to Asia. CMS has an incredible global network and the demonstrable number and quality of deals done by us in the CEE region year on year is a great credential. I am a firm believer in building a good rapport with individuals on both sides of a deal and in maintaining existing relationships after a deal is done. Building a network and a practice is an exercise in longevity – nothing happens overnight, but good relationships go a long way and are a key factor. Visibility and presence is also important, so I also try to frequent various networking events in Prague and international conferences in the region, particularly in the private equity and M&A space.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Frances: Commercial, pragmatic, and responsive.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the English and Czech judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Frances: Primarily the various document and registration formalities involved in getting the deal done and the incorporation of English law concepts into Central and Eastern European transaction documentation, where there is not, in many cases, a significant body of case law. That said, deal documentation in the Czech Republic is more aligned than ever with what I would see as international market standard and the legal market here is well developed. Market trends in M&A also tend to differ when looking at CEE deals, as too do the specific issues or risks that crop up across the region, which make local knowledge and expertise important factors in every deal (as they would be in any jurisdiction).
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Frances: As my focus has primarily been on complex and cross-border transactions throughout the region, I have become aware of some of the key differences between, for example, transaction structures that would be possible in one jurisdiction but not another, and I have developed a feel for the rigidity of authorities in certain countries. I believe that particularly on multi-jurisdictional deals clients appreciate having a single point of contact that is aware of local differences that may affect the transaction and that can interpret various areas of advice provided by the local colleagues in the context of the wider transaction.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to Australia?
Frances: While my friends and family back home might have something to say about it, I do not have any immediate or medium term plans to move back to Australia. I am from Sydney, which is a fabulous city; however, from both a professional and personal perspective, I feel very much at home in the Czech Republic and it is hard to pass up the quality of work/deal flow and European lifestyle.
CEELM: Outside of the Czech Republic, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?
Frances: That is a tough one as I tend to enjoy most of the CEE countries I visit. Although, I spent a couple of months in Bucharest on a deal a few years ago and always look back fondly on the city. There are some great open, green spaces in and around the city and the city has a very interesting mix of old and new, which I like.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Prague?
Frances: Prague becomes more and more cosmopolitan every year – the food scene in particular. I like to take visitors on a bit of a culinary tour of my favourite, new, and longstanding spots. If the season is right, I also like to explore the various food markets – the Naplavka farmers’ market is always a hit – and of course the beer gardens in Letna and Riegrovy Sady are a great place to enjoy the sun with some spectacular views of the city.