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Expat on the Market: Interview with Simon Dayes of Dentons

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An interview with Simon Dayes, Partner at Dentons in Bucharest, about his path from the UK to Romania.

CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Dentons in Romania.

Simon: I started in London in 1985 with the firm that is now called Taylor Wessing, and I specialized in transactional finance before CEE went through the changes in 1989. My career seemed to keep leading me into new environments, and I worked on a number of longer-term foreign transactions and had secondments with one US bank – Bank of America – and one European bank – Bank Austria (now part of UniCredit). 

Taylor Wessing had a law office in Bucharest, and in 1997 I was asked to come out to see what finance opportunities there might be.  To our surprise, we began to win some real work, and I was in and out of Romania for the next six or seven years, before moving to Bucharest for good in 2004. My wife Cornelia is Romanian and, after three years based in London, we were happy to come back here.

I joined CMS as an international finance partner after returning to Bucharest, and by January 2020, seven members of the former finance team at CMS found ourselves at Dentons, including Simona Marin who has been my transactional finance partner for more than five years.  At Dentons, Simona and I continue to focus on cross-border financings into CEE – and beyond.

CEELM: Was it always your goal to work in Romania?          

Simon: No, not originally.  It took me a while to realize that I loved the environment and the atmosphere of Romania. Until then, all I felt was how refreshing it was not being in the UK. But now I am sure I would never have settled in Central Europe if I had not first landed in Bucharest. There is something liberating and down-to-earth about Romania, and I love Bucharest’s blowsy charms.

There are times when I am working on few or no Romania-based transactions. Our clients tend to have regional specialities (e.g., renewable energy) that are not aimed at one particular country. But while I love working in the region, I would not want to live anywhere but Bucharest. It is wonderful to be sat centrally within CEE – it is just as easy to get to Athens as it is to get to Warsaw or Vienna or Kyiv or Belgrade, and having business interests in these (and other) cities is a pleasure too.

CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.    

Simon: When I first started in Bucharest, we were delighted to win any finance law work in Romania, but we argued that we added the most value on cross-border transactions involving English law that required transaction management and project finance (which was my sector in London). In those days, our main clients were the banks in Bucharest. 

As time went on, we began to advise the Romanian banks’ parent banks (in Vienna, Athens, Paris, Amsterdam, etc.) and these banks then began to invite us into transactions wider in CEE. Multi-lateral financial institutions also began to involve us in transactions as far afield as Central Asia and Africa. We gathered that our clients saw us as a credible alternative to the London law firms, who might not have as much knowledge as we did of the particular sector or market. 

Now we focus on key clients who need advice on cross-border financings into Dentons jurisdictions, and we benefit from Dentons’ global footprint. Our team provides the English law advice on the cross-border lending, and our Dentons colleagues in the country where the project is developed advise on the law there. In theory, the whole world is our playing field.

CEELM: How would clients describe your style?    

Simon: All of us should keep remembering that we are in business for pleasure as well as for progress, and remind each other to share humor, even in the most critical negotiations. Most transactions have anomalies or take unexpected directions, some have surreal or humorous personalities or events. I think that we build stronger bonds with clients not only by huddling to discuss strategy and tactics but also by sharing a good chuckle now and again.

CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the English and Romanian judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?   

Simon: It has been a privilege in my career to have worked in different countries, across different business cultures, and with a range of people and priorities.  Vive la difference!

As English lawyers, perhaps we flatter ourselves by saying that common law encourages flexibility and new transaction structures.  This can be challenging in some civil law jurisdictions where any journey is more comfortable on a smooth, well-trodden road and untested methods or documents make people uncomfortable. 

Another major difference is that transactions here are more dependent on trust among the parties than cold words on a page. That is meaningful not only for the LOI and contracts but long into a business relationship.       

CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant and significant?    

Simon: Coming from an island, it is difficult to get our arms around just how many different languages and cultures are crammed onto one land mass, and how huge the changes can really be when you cross one of the many CEE borders. 

CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?

Simon: The topical subject now is how the business community can recover from the void left by the COVID-19 pandemic. Quite a few of us remember the 2008 credit crunch and how long it took to reclaim the lost ground. But the shock, particular to young lawyers, of the pandemic seems to many as unprecedented. To me, the situation has parallels with the UK real estate crash of 1990, and I identify with the younger lawyers. Back then, all transactions were stopped overnight, and the deal pipeline dropped to zero. After a while, finance lawyers realized that they had to re-invent themselves as restructuring specialists to survive, and we wondered whether the career trajectories that we had been nurturing were gone forever. Now, of course, older dogs like me can assure the younger generations that life and the law goes on, and that we are all likely to have to live through future periods of instability.

More generally, being an expatriate lawyer working across jurisdictions is helpful when clients are looking for reassurance that a new structure in one country is workable, or has parallels, in another. So we have the opportunity to gather up solutions from different situations and help apply them in different contexts.

CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to the UK?         

Simon: None at all! I have never regretted emigrating to Romania and I suppose Brexit confirmed some of my fears of where the UK might be heading. One of England’s great exports is its law and courts. I have been a lucky beneficiary of that, and thought it painful to watch some erosion of this position. I think that English law and courts will still be the preferred option in Europe, Africa, and Asia, much like New York law and courts are in the Western Hemisphere.

CEELM: Outside of Romania, which CEE country do you enjoy visiting the most, and why?     

Simon: We are lucky enough to have regional clients in Athens, and this can sometimes give us welcome warmth, and seafood, when snow is on the ground in Bucharest. It is always good to find an excuse to give some training to clients in Athens in January or February.

CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Bucharest? 

Simon: Why not use its diverse architecture to get a feel for Bucharest and its rich history? I would suggest exploring various quarters and parks of Bucharest with visitors on foot. Include the old town and the “embassy district,” take a promenade down Calea Victoriei, react to the astonishing “people’s palace”, without forgetting to enjoy fine restaurants and cafe terraces along the way. The wealth of (often overlooked) Art Deco, Modernist, and Brancovean architecture alone makes a visit to Bucharest worth it.

This Article was originally published in Issue 7.6 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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