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The Long Path to Paradise: Hungarian Lawyer Agnes Molnar Follows Her Muse Across the World

The Long Path to Paradise: Hungarian Lawyer Agnes Molnar Follows Her Muse Across the World

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Starting from modest beginnings in the small Hungarian city of Eger, Agnes Molnar’s career has taken her across the world, from small local law firms to the Magic Circle, from state entities to global banks, and from Budapest to London to Vienna to Montreal. Now, some 10,000 kilometers away from her home country, she is a Partner at Travers Thorpe Alberga in the Cayman Islands. If, as the Chinese proverb has it, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, Molnar is already half-way there.

Beginnings in Hungary

“I clearly remember being 12 years old when I decided I wanted to become a lawyer,” Molnar recalls. This came as a shock to her parents, who had been anticipating a very different career, perhaps one arising from her natural talent with music – especially the violin. “My father is a musician – and a very, very talented one at that – so he believed that I’d carry on the mantle,” she laughs. “I even had perfect pitch!”

Nonetheless, she was determined. “I am very grateful that I was fortunate enough to realize what I wanted to be at an early age,” she says. “It gave me such a strong drive to make it work.” Molnar got her law degree from Hungary’s University of Miskolc in 1998, then moved to Budapest and accepted a position at the Competition Office of the Hungarian Government.

“It was a really interesting time,” Molnar says, “because the country had just started growing beyond the confines of the former communist regime.” In moving towards a capitalist system, Hungary was creating new regulatory bodies to ensure the proper functioning of its nascent system. “Supervisory functions were quite new and unique, and I was thrust headfirst into overseeing the competition aspects of the banking and capital market sector,” she says. In addition to a steep learning curve, she says, she “had good fun, learned a lot, and had really great colleagues.”

Before long, however, Molnar felt that it was time for a change. “I always had a passion for forging close relationships – I am really a people’s person – and that’s exactly what the Competition Office lacked.” Eager to try something new and more client-facing, she moved into private practice in a small Budapest law firm led by former Hungarian Olympic Pentathlon gold medalist Ferenc Torok.

While learning the ropes, Molnar became aware that many of her former law school classmates were doing something more interesting. “Friends from law school that worked for newly established international law firms were working on cross border large deals,” she says. “It was a time of large privatization projects in the region, and this type of complex work excited me and made me wonder what could I do to work for those firms.”

The next step, she says, was obvious. “I realized that, in order to work for the international firms, I had to have immaculate knowledge of English – something that wasn’t that often found in those days due to the school system in Hungary focusing on Russian as a compulsory foreign language.” To that end, in 1999, she picked up and headed to the source. “I had no money for a plane ticket so I got myself on a bus – a 36-hour ride to be exact – and soon found myself in London! I was never abroad before that moment – I did not even have a passport!”

Loving London Act I

In the English capital, and while working on her English, Molnar took a procession of small jobs – first as an au pair with a local family, then at a local bar, and, eventually, as an office assistant at Bookman & Co., a small accountancy firm. “The firm needed someone to file documents and send emails – PA type of work, but I was all for it,” she recalls. “I established a good relationship with Peter Bookman and when he learned that I already had a Hungarian doctorate in law, he encouraged me to get a degree in English Law.”

“It was amazing to us that Agnes would have to get a UK university degree in law in order to practice, given that she already had it from back in Hungary,” Bookman laughs. After all these years, he remembers Molnar’s worth ethic well. “She was one of the most driven and dedicated legal professionals we ever encountered,” he says. “Her legal thinking was excellent and her approach to law was very, very practical.” He recalls that period with a smile. “We were carrying out court appearances as well, back in the day, and she had a real gift. That plus a high level of common sense. That’s what made her stand out.”

With the accounting firm sponsoring her student loan, Molnar was admitted to London South Bank University in 2002. It wasn’t, she recalls, easy. “It was a real challenge, just grasping the concepts in a language that was still quite foreign to me at the time. Getting my head wrapped around case law that even native speakers had issues with was a tough nut to crack.”

Bookman recalls Molnar tackling the difficult legal degree head on, with a purpose. “She just knuckled down and did it in nine months, it was downright an amazing sight to see,” he recalls. “She has a phenomenal personality, which was especially evident when it came to client-facing work. We were honored to encourage her on her career path, we saw great, great potential – and she returned us the favor twice-fold, with her work and commitment to the company.”

Molnar earned her degree with a commendation in 2003, but her studies were not yet complete, and, while continuing to juggle her other professional responsibilities, she enrolled in a legal practice course at London’s BPP Law School. About halfway through that course, she was contacted by a recruiter in Hungary with the news that a law firm back in Budapest was interested in talking with her. Although she hadn’t been planning on a return to her native land, yet, she decided to give the firm a call and see what they had in mind.

The firm was White & Case.

Leaving London and Back to Budapest

“I was pleasantly shocked!” Molnar recalls. “The Budapest office of White & Case was led by a veritable legend – Istvan Reczicza, now Managing Partner at Dentons’ Budapest – and it all became much more interesting.” Molnar accepted the firm’s offer, and in June, 2004, she moved to Budapest to start her work as a trainee solicitor.  “I was working on the financing of the construction of the M6 motorway with the remarkable private equity expert of White & Case Budapest, Rob Irving, and also had some fascinating banking deals with Karoly Foti,” she says. “It was hard work, but we had so much fun! I was the only one who commuted to BPP London from Budapest to finish my LPC course!”

“I was the one that interviewed Agnes for the position,” recalls Irving, now Co-Chair of Dentons’ global Private Equity group. “Agnes had a tremendous amount of energy and ambition coming in – something she used to her advantage while navigating and adjusting to the job.” During her time with W&C, Irving says, she revealed herself to be open to learning new things and working hard, and demonstrated a quick wit. According to him, “she was very engaged with whatever she was handling – clearly quite committed to making the transformation to a top tier corporate lawyer.”

Before long, opportunity knocked again. In 2007, while completing her Hungarian Bar exams – which she describes as “the hardest thing I have ever done, by far,” she learned that Dominic Griffiths, then a senior finance lawyer from the London office of White & Case, would be joining Mayer Brown (where he became Global Head of Finance). “I had worked with Dom before so I emailed him sending my congratulations,” Molnar recalls. “I was ecstatic when I received his response asking me to pop in to see him the next time I was in London.”

Molnar made an immediate impression on Griffiths, who described her as “clever, engaging, with bags of character and ambition!” In addition, he says, “I was impressed with her academics and the experience she had already gained. It was clear that Agnes wanted to move to a larger office and take on more complex, cross-border work, and I was also interested in the Central and Eastern European angle – having a bi-lingual lawyer in London familiar with the legal regime in Hungary and surrounding nations.”

Soon after, Molnar ended up moving back to London to join the Structured Finance team at Mayer Brown.

Bagging Budapest, Loving London (II), and a Canadian Caper

“It was immediately obvious that we had made the right decision in offering Agnes a position with Mayer Brown in London,” Griffiths continues. “She threw herself into the work and very soon became an excellent deal lawyer – tenacious and commercial as well as hard working.” And more. “Not only did Agnes perform well in transactions, but she also helped immensely in marketing activity and conferences,” he says. “She became an expert in Central and Eastern European securitization, writing articles, presenting to clients, and appearing on stage at conferences, in London as well as Vienna.”

Soon after joining Mayer Brown, Molnar completed her third and final Hungarian bar exam and was admitted to the Budapest Bar. The Law Society of England and Wales, acknowledging her significant time with international law firms, waived the two-year training requirement, and she was admitted as a solicitor of the Senior Courts of England in 2007 as well.

That same year, on a trip to Vietnam and Thailand, Molnar met Marc-Olivier Chenevert, a French-Canadian restauranteur. “It was love at first sight,” Molnar says. “We had a long-distance relationship for two years, commuting between London and Montreal. After that, we got quite serious and he asked me to move in with him, in Montreal!” She was, as ever, undaunted. “I remember thinking that an English-qualified finance lawyer could work anywhere in the world,” she recalls with a laugh. “So why not?”

She soon found out. To work in Quebec, Molnar would have to sit for another bar exam – this time, with an extra challenge. “I soon saw a major hurdle – I could take the bar in English, but all of the preparation material was in French.” This, it turned out, was a bridge too far. “It was really tough, having to try and learn yet another language in order to be able to practice law, after a doctorate in Hungary, post-grad, and an LPC in the UK.” Regret fills her voice. “I tried, I really did and I gave it my best – but we decided that was just too much!” In 2010, she and her now-husband moved back to London.

Upon returning to London, Molnar moved in-house, helping first GE Capital and then Wells Fargo cope with the fallout of the global financial crisis. 

Then, in 2013, just as it seemed that things were calming down and she had settled in – Molnar got another phone call.

Veering Towards Vienna

Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer Partner Attila Csongrady was calling from Vienna. “Attila was the Head of the English Law Finance desk at Freshfields and I was very excited to get a call from him – I just simply could not say no!” Molnar says. “CEE was always close to my heart, I had had a lot of CEE-related work at Mayer Brown, and this seemed like a most enticing turn for my career.”

“I vividly remember interviewing Agnes, in London,” recalls Freshfields Partner Friedrich Jergitsch. “She was quite formidable, quite convincing, handling her own – not an easy feat to accomplish when you’re facing five senior lawyers crisscrossing you with questions, confronting you, and discussing all things legal. But she was quite, quite good.”

Molnar as welcomed with open arms at Freshfields, although, ironically, Csongrady himself had moved on before she got there. Jergitsch describes Molnar as “a very pro-active, business-minded person. She constantly seeks out opportunities, is an amazing networker, and was an excellent addition to the team.”

“I had a really, really good time with Freshfields in Vienna,” Molnar recalls. “I made a lot of good friends, and had the opportunity to work on a lot of really good financing transactions and securitizations – it was a great time of my life.”

However, three years later, in 2016, Molnar felt that it was time to move again. It didn’t surprise her colleagues. “There is no denying that Austria may be on a bit of a periphery of the English-law world,” Jergitsch laughs. “While we do have some transactions that bear merit, the true epicenter of this is London. Agnes had the knack to make it big there, and she has always wanted to get in the grit of things.”

Last Time in London

Moving back to London for the third time, Molnar joined the Fund Finance group at Reed Smith. “While there, I focused on investment funds and their financing,” she says. “I had the great pleasure of advising on the first ever fund-financing deal in Romania, acted for funds investing in real estate assets in Serbia and Poland, and advising on financing the acquisition of sub-performing and non-performing loan assets in Kazakhstan and Greece.  – I have actively pursued opportunities in the Eastern European emerging markets.”

She spent three and a half years in London this time. Then – yes – the phone rang again.

The Call to the Caymans

This time the call came from the other side of the Atlantic – the Cayman Islands, in the Caribbean Sea. “I’ve spent all of my career offshore and the network of recruiting consultants we have at our disposal, at this point, is significant,” says Travers Thorp Alberga Senior Partner Anthony Travers. “People come onto our radar by way of reference – good client work, excellence in handling complicated matters – and we spotted Agnes in the same way.”

Travers says that he and his colleagues realized that Molnar possessed the necessary drive and determination, and her unique background was a strong selling point. “Her story is one of triumph in the face of adversity,” he says. “Coming to England without knowing any of the language, working her way up from the very bottom – amazing. I am reminded of a quote of Martin Luther King Jr.’s about how it is not a matter of color but the content of one’s character – looking at Agnes, at her tremendous will-power and her fierce determination, it is clear that overcoming adversity is exactly her story.”

Molnar says that Travers Thorp Alberga turned out to be a perfect match for her as well. “I was skilled, by that time, in 2019, in thinking through the entire life-cycle of an investment fund, foreseeing potential borrowing and liquidity needs, and anticipating roadblocks, so their invitation to join their Investment Funds team seemed like a natural continuation of my work.”

She claims, now, to be truly content. “Tending to the needs of investment funds first hand, to the investments they need, helping them structure their investment vehicles in such a way as to have an optimized funding structure, complying with regulatory requirements – I am finally in a position to be able to provide truly holistic advice to clients,” Molnar says. “Having to think outside the box, seeing the big picture for the clients – this is a position in which there is never a dull moment and, after twelve years of pure finance, to be able to do this – it feels really amazing.”

“Agnes is at the top of her profession and has been a great success already,” Travers says of his Hungarian colleague, describing her as “not only a very positive technical lawyer but a person with quite a charming demeanor who spreads a great aura around the office.” As a result, Travers predicts that Molnar – whom he calls the firm’s “Magyar Princess” – will have a terrific career with the firm, not only because of her “warrior-like mentality, but also because she is an inspiration to us all.”

Content in the Caribbean

“I’m impressed that Agnes has gone from strength to strength in the legal industry and am immensely proud of her, having been an early colleague and mentor,” Dominic Griffiths says, from London. “We keep in touch and compare notes on the market often. Agnes made discerning career moves at relevant times over the years that have made a lot of sense for her and her family. It is wonderful to see a clever, successful woman such as Agnes make such progress in our profession.”

For her part, Molnar claims to be content, living in paradise with Marc-Olivier, their twin 9-year old boys Adam and Leo, and their 4-year old daughter Zoe. And to some extent her path has come full circle. “The Grand Cayman,” she says, “which is the largest of the three islands of Cayman Islands, itself has about 60,000 people – much like the town of Eger, where I grew up in back in Hungary – so everybody knows everyone.”

Though, perhaps, not quite the same as Eger, Budapest, Vienna, or London. “Here, I have a chance to stop and smell the roses – we go out snorkeling every week, my husband regularly kite-surfs, I swim every day, run, and do yoga,” she says. “It’s a very, very different experience and a true change of pace compared to how life was back in Europe. Back there it was all much faster, in a way, running around, commuting, rarely getting a chance to spend time with the family – I really appreciate the change in that regard.”

Still, Molnar concedes that she misses the cultural aspects of the old country – “I miss the Budapest Opera House, to be honest, and museums and theaters” – but she insists she doesn’t have many regrets. “I focus on all the things that are here, and first and foremost its safety – there haven’t really been any Covid cases in the Cayman, with the island being closed off to the rest of the world – so it’s very safe here and life, in most ways, moves along at a normal pace.” And the turquoise ocean doesn’t bother her either.

Still, Molnar doesn’t rule out the possibility of returning to Europe. “Life is short and you have to do what makes you happy. My family loves Budapest – both my husband and my children – so I cannot really rule out moving back to Hungary or Europe somewhere one day,” she says. “But, I feel supported and valued here and that makes me very happy.”

This Article was originally published in Issue 8.3 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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