Wednesday, 13 October 2021 11:41

José Antonio Morán, Baker Mckenzie Chicago partner: "Wake up and smell the coffee"

José Antonio Morán leads Baker McKenzie's Energy, Mining and Infrastructure practice global practice and is a partner in Baker McKenzie's Chicago office. While he was studying for the Illinois Bar Exam, his wife, also a lawyer in both jurisdictions, was doing the same for the New York Bar Exam. To young people starting who may feel called by an example like his, he recommends that "they should fight hard for what they want and try to be the best at it ", as well as "take care of their health and fitness", something he considers vital to be able to think and operate at high performance and with dedication. And, most importantly, "if they don't manage to achieve what they set out to do, they should not give up but keep on fighting", because, -says this great adventurer-, "small and big failures always provide good lessons."

You graduated with a degree in Law from the Complutense University. When you started, did you ever imagine that you would have such an international career? Where did this vocation for "adventure" come from?

My interest to study and work outside Spain was sparked by an internship I did in New York in the summer of 1992 (when the Olympics were taking place in Barcelona) in Banco Santander's syndicated loan department in New York. The following year I got into a programme for Spanish Law students at Columbia University (also in Manhattan), which I already knew and where I had some good friends, and also played in two rugby teams where I met some great friends and clients that I have kept to this day.

Practising Law in the USA, studying Law in the US, being a member of the Bar in several US states is no easy feat. You graduated from Loyola University Chicago School of Law and got your LLM (Banking and Corporate Law) from Fordham University School of Law, and you are also a lawyer in Illinois, Washington DC, New York and Wyoming, but apart from the academic requirements, what other requirements posed a challenge to you at the time?

I had studied English since I was a child, first in an English school in Madrid, and I also studied a year of High School in the US and spent summers travelling there. The truth is that I always felt at ease with the language, with the flexibility, spontaneity and pragmatism of Americans and life in the US, where merit and ability prevail over anything else, even if your accent is not perfect (after 28 years in the US I don't think I've quite managed to find the perfect American accent).

The toughest part was the time when I had to work full time and finish my Juris Doctor (US Law degree) at Loyola School of Law, I had billable hour targets to reach and mandatory first-year Law courses to study, and above all, I had to read a huge number of topics every day to find out what was going to be discussed the next day in class (unlike the Spanish teaching method, in the US Law schools follow the Socratic method). On top of this, I studied for the Bar over the summer. Raquel, my wife (a Spanish and US lawyer), also studied for the Bar that summer. She was studying for the New York Bar, and I was studying for the Illinois one, which made it much more enjoyable.

From the beginning of your career, you have worked for international firms; the Parisian Gide Loyrette Nouel, where you began as an associate, the US Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, and Baker McKenzie, to this day. Did they snap you up, or did you let them snap you up?

The truth is that I loved all three of them. They were different moments in my career, but they all offered me something that other firms did not, and I was given the chance to choose. At Gide, I was focused on European corporate transactions in the US, at Simpson I was the first Spaniard ever to work in that firm, and before deciding on Baker and moving from New York to Chicago, I had another offer from a major New York firm, but in the end, I decided to come to Baker. Marcel Molins and Pablo Garcia-Moreno (two of the firm's famous and distinguished partners, as well as Spanish and US lawyers, were key to attracting me), Baker also made sure that I went to study Law in the US. On top of all this, in 1997 and long before, Baker had a key presence in Madrid and Barcelona, which was decisive in my decision and allowed me to remain close to Spain, my family and Spanish companies. In the process, I clearly did not fully appreciate just how cold Chicago winters were...

You specialise in cross-border transactions and work on multiple matters, especially with Latin America and Spain, as an expert in project finance, debt restructuring. What kind of matters do you handle most in this area, and what kind of clients do you deal with?

My practice area has always been cross-border credit transactions, with and without resources (Project Finance), particularly in regulated sectors (banking, hydrocarbons, electricity (generation and distribution) and transport concessions (airports, tolls, railways) and other social infrastructure (hospitals).

I have also been working in Latin America since 1992 when I worked at Banco Santander in New York on the financing plan for Argentina approved by the Minister of the Economy, Domingo Cavallo. My expertise at that time was the assignment and sale of bad loans between banks and other funds. These types of arrangements have been very common in Latin American countries as a result of sovereign debt defaults and private-sector failures to pay international banks, leading to large debt restructurings and international arbitration at ICSID.

For many years and even this very month, I have worked and still work a lot in Mexico, mostly in the renewable energy sector as well as in financial services and Fintech. Most of my transactions are subject to New York Law, and my clients are energy and infrastructure companies as well as (pension and sovereign) funds. In recent years we have guided many companies on their way towards the energy transition by acquiring, developing and financing renewable energy projects (solar, battery and wind) in the US and Canada.

You are also regarded as a specialist in energy-related matters. What way is the wind blowing in Latin America in this area? Is Europe ahead in terms of implementing and developing renewable energies?

The Energy Transition has reached all corners of the globe, so far with much more intensity in the US and Canada and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Americas. The regulatory challenges of the Mexican market are unique and a distinct situation that is generating a lot of concern among companies and investors in the renewables sector. The reality is that all global hydrocarbon companies have agreed to reduce their carbon emissions and have set targets, so they are looking for new renewable energy generation projects. The current trend set by these multinationals in the oil and gas sector is to take on a portfolio of projects and, in many cases, a company with experience in developing and promoting renewable assets. Europe has the upper hand with regard to the regulatory push. The EU Green Deal is a new European economic growth strategy to achieve a circular, competitive and climate-neutral economy by 2050. However, M&A activity related to the energy transition is, in my opinion, dominated by the US. For example, in the US, investment in renewables is based on tax benefits (credits) that investors in these projects enjoy. This is a real and practical incentive because if a company builds up these credits, it can apply them to the amount it has to pay on its tax return. Traditionally, large banks and insurance companies have been the major investors in the US renewables tax equity market.

After close to a quarter of a century with the firm, we can say that you have grown up with it. Could you make a parallel assessment of the two things?

A lot of snow has fallen in Chicago since 1997... and our firm has gone from strength to strength in the US and the rest of the world. First of all, I would highlight the effort we have made in terms of training lawyers so that under the right conditions, they can grow as lawyers and become partners. Frankly speaking, our DNA and our culture are global/international, and it's our way of thinking. It is nothing new. At Baker, therefore, we are perhaps somewhat ahead of the trends and globalisation. Our clients, and especially Spanish multinationals, see the world in a very similar "the word is flat" way and expertise and leadership in certain industries such as concessions or renewable energy generation projects by Spanish companies is recognised worldwide from Sydney to Mexico City. The firm focused on industry groups as well as practice groups. Today at Baker, as well as all the practice groups across the different areas of Law, we have nine industry groups our most important clients belong to (i) consumer goods & retail, (ii) energy, mining and infrastructure, (iii) financial institutions, (iv) health and life sciences, (v) hotels, resorts and tourism, (vi) industrial, manufacturing and transport companies, (vii) private equity, (viii) real estate, (ix) technology, media and telecommunications.

The firm also focused on training partners as managers and leaders of their teams, their clients and as leaders in practices and industries. There is always room to learn.  Many partners went back to school as students, in this case, Northwestern's Kellogg Business School in Chicago or the Center for Creative Leadership in Colorado.

Since joining the firm as an associate in 1997, I have had the chance to serve the firm as a partner in charge of hiring lawyers in Chicago, as head of the banking, infrastructure, real estate and environmental Law practice in the US, Canada and Mexico and currently as chair of the firm's energy, mining and infrastructure practice group.

Ordinary citizens are acquainted with US legal practice through well-known TV series featuring lawyers as kinds of " knights-errant", but surely it is not all like that. How would you describe practising Law in the USA? What qualities are required to practise Law successfully? In other words, what do you miss about practising Law in Europe?

Practising Law in a big or medium-sized US law firm is, in my opinion, no longer so different from practising Law in a large law firm in any European capital. In the US, lawyers, including partners, are available most of the time, and lawyers are consulted for their first and best opinion on how viable deals of any significance to a company are before entering into any transaction. Training juniors is key, and much of this is done with more senior lawyers and partners, taking part in calls and reviewing documents together in the office. In the US, drafting and briefing skills are very important. As a result, Law schools have several mandatory courses on how to write efficiently, concisely and in a way that clearly states your solution, opinion and recommendation on any issue raised by the client. In Spain, there are great lawyers both in the office and in firms (especially in regulated sectors). The latter know regulations better than anyone else in many cases, and I am lucky enough to assist many of them in their transactions outside Spain.

Chicago. A good location. What's the general climate like now? What businesses currently dominate activity in this Illinois-state city?

Chicago is still the capital of the US Midwest and home to the headquarters of major multinationals in key sectors, from Boeing to AbbVie pharmaceuticals, agribusiness giants John Deere, ADM and Ingredion. All these companies and many others operate at a global level with multiple branches around the world.  Chicago's original business fabric has always been industrial. Chicago has a vibrant economic activity (despite the pandemic), as well as five Law schools, three of which are among the top schools in the US. The consumer real estate market is very active as most graduates from the Midwest (from states such as Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, Minnesota and Wisconsin) look for jobs in Chicago with big multinationals. Chicago offers the sophistication of New York's dining scene.  The pace is a little more leisurely, with more green spaces and a lake that feels like the sea in summer. It's a haven for sailing and open water swimming fans.

What advice would you give young people starting out, and who may feel called by your example? Also, if you could start all over again, what would you change?

They should fight hard for what they want and try to be the best at it, they should take care of their health and fitness, which is crucial to their ability to think and perform at a high level with dedication.  Most importantly, if they don't manage to achieve what they set out to do, they should not give up but keep on fighting. Big and small failures always provide good lessons.

After so many years in Chicago, do you miss Spain? How is Spain seen from the USA? What about Europe?

Luckily I travel to Spain on a regular basis. I also move to Madrid with my family every year in July, and  I continue to work from the Madrid office and take the opportunity to meet my partners and clients. The change of scenery is always good, they are usually marathon days on "Spanish" and "American" time, but it is a way of staying connected with my family, friends, partners and clients. Spain and Spanish companies are recognised in the US for their high standards when it comes to doing business. The fact is that Europe continues to lead in direct investment in the US. Generally, the UK and Germany are the European investor countries par excellence, and the most active sectors in the US are manufacturing, banking and insurance.

What do you have left to achieve?

Hundreds of things, studying and reading up on new subjects, revisiting forgotten ones, taking up new hobbies, the latest one being mountain climbing. I hope to reach the summit of Mount Moran in Wyoming (3,840 m) in the summer of 2022.

Sum up your vital balance to date in one sentence, in both professional and personal terms.

"Wake up and smell the coffee"

By Desiré Vidal

To read the full interview on issue number 108 click here

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