Joe Clinton is a Partner at Allen & Overy in Istanbul, where he advises sponsors, borrowers, and lenders on a range of transactions, including project development and financing as well as real estate, leveraged and structured financing transactions, and general lending, with particular emphasis in the Middle East and Eastern European energy and infrastructure sectors.
CEELM: Run us through your background, and how you ended up in your current role with Allen & Overy.
Joe: I joined A&O as a trainee in London, qualifying into the Projects team in 2005. After a few years in London I moved out to our Moscow office for a two-year secondment. At the time the market in Moscow was growing quickly, but then the financial crisis happened. Although the Russian economy was badly affected, I managed to keep myself busy working on some projects in the Middle East. When the secondment finished, I relocated to Dubai as I had done a lot of work with the office there.
I was in Dubai when we were planning to open in Istanbul. The firm wanted someone with a Projects background who could operate in an emerging market and was willing to move. I was asked if I wanted to go out and help establish the office, which was a really exciting opportunity. I have been in Istanbul for over six years now.
CEELM: Was it always your goal to work abroad?
Joe: Yes, the opportunity to do part of my training contract in an overseas office was one of the reasons I joined A&O. I spent a very enjoyable six months as a trainee in Tokyo. However, I hadn’t necessarily envisaged I would then spend over ten years (and counting) abroad in three different overseas offices after I qualified! I enjoy the personal challenge that comes with living in a different culture as well as the variety of work.
CEELM: Tell us briefly about your practice, and how you built it up over the years.
Joe: I qualified into the Projects team in London and therefore project finance has always been the core of my practice – particularly large-scale energy projects. However, one of the nice things about being in a smaller office in an emerging market is the variety of the work and the need to turn your hand to different things. My practice therefore covers the full range of banking work, from bilateral corporate loans to various types of structured lending. I think the most important way to build a practice is to do a good job on-deal. Particularly in this region, you frequently come across the same people – whether as clients or across the table – and you will find your reputation very quickly precedes you, whether good or bad.
CEELM: How would clients describe your style?
Joe: I like to think of myself as pragmatic. Particularly in project finance there is a shared objective in getting the relevant infrastructure built, and therefore it lends itself to a more consensual than adversarial approach to negotiations. I think clients quickly get frustrated by lawyers who try to score points unnecessarily in a negotiation and therefore it is important to identify the material points that are worth fighting for and to try to be sensible about the rest.
CEELM: There are obviously many differences between the Turkish and English judicial systems and legal markets. What idiosyncrasies or differences stand out the most?
Joe: One obvious idiosyncrasy is the value that people put on relationships when doing business – more so than many other jurisdictions I have worked in. It is generalizing, but often I feel like having a strong contract is less important than the relationship with the counterparty. The legal system in Turkey has been through some considerable changes itself recently with the constitution moving from a parliamentary system to an executive presidency where the president can issue decrees. I think we are still to see how that will work in the long-term and so Turkey itself is still trying to work out how different its own legal system is now.
CEELM: How about the cultures? What differences strike you as most resonant?
Joe: Turks pride themselves, rightly, on their hospitality, and Istanbul is surprisingly friendly for a megacity. People are always willing to help, especially for foreigners, which cannot always be said of London. They are also very willing to try to communicate with foreigners who speak terrible Turkish!
My wife and I have two small children, both born in Istanbul, and the other thing we have noticed is just how family-friendly everyone is. You have to be ready for complete strangers to pinch their cheeks and possibly walk them around a restaurant for a bit, but at least it gives you a chance to finish your meal!
CEELM: What particular value do you think a senior expatriate lawyer in your role adds – both to a firm and to its clients?
Joe: For the firm, having a senior expat in Istanbul reaffirms our commitment to the market and ensures that the firm as a whole is focussing on the opportunities in Turkey. We have a small team of English lawyers on the ground in Istanbul which allows us to execute deals from the office. I think clients really appreciate this – they are getting people who really know and understand the market who are also available to go round for a face-to-face meeting on short notice. They know it is a market that we are taking seriously.
CEELM: Do you have any plans to move back to the UK at some point?
Joe: No, not currently. My family moved to Jersey when I was eight and are still there, so they are not on mainland UK, and despite meeting my wife in a bar in Camden she is Canadian – so there is no family pull on either side to go back. While we won’t be in Turkey forever, we are pretty open-minded about what the future might bring. For the time being, however, the whole family is very happy in Istanbul.
CEELM: What’s your favorite place to take visitors in Istanbul?
Joe: Of the usual tourist sights the one that our visitors usually find the most impressive is the Basilica Cisterns as no one really knows what to expect from an ancient underground cistern. They always come out raving about it. Off the beaten track, we like to take them to an area called Rumeli Hisari which is further up the Bosphorus than the usual tourist areas. There is a simple restaurant which does an amazing Turkish breakfast that we like to take people to. Next to it is the remains of a 15th century castle that makes for an interesting visit and then it is a nice walk down the Bosphorus from there.
This Article was originally published in Issue 6.2 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.