Mayer Brown banking and finance co-head Dominic Griffiths is a partner in the firm’s London office.
‘Brexit’. A word that only entered our vocabulary recently, but one that sets families, friends and colleagues into fits of political wrangling, accompanied by hysterical warnings of economic Armageddon or (depending on your persuasion) a new dawn of political sovereignty, our very own ‘Independence Day’.
The majority of the London legal community is reported to have voted Remain, with a brave few lifting their heads above the parapet to declare Brexit leanings, risking public vilification and accusations of rabid bigotry and xenophobia.
As someone who is genuinely sympathetic to arguments on both sides of the fence, I decided recently to institute an old fashioned etiquette in the Griffiths household, of banning the discussion of politics at the dining table. At least European politics.
In an age of not so much fake news but exaggerated and inadvertently incorrect reporting (some friends were recently led to believe by sections of their media that Theresa May’s invocation of Article 50 this week would lead to an immediate travel ban on EU citizens travelling to the UK) it is difficult to have a rational discussion on the future of the EU, or the UK economy.
The narcissistic preening of leading Brexiteer and Remain politicians, together with our tendency these days to stream our news through selective media, bifurcates the debate in a manner that leaves little room for compromise or agreement.
So, on the eve of triggering the irreversible exit from the institution we’ve been a member of for more than 40 years, what is the sentiment of the City lawyer? There is worry, of course. There is bound to be uncertainty in such a negative and noisy political environment, a furore which shows no signs of abating during the no doubt fraught period of negotiation for exit.
“We lawyers are a conservative lot, but it’s time to get with the new agenda.”
Notwithstanding some positive economic signs, we face the prospect of a less than beneficial trade deal and a lack of a passporting regime or equivalency that freely enables our financial institution and insurance clients to conduct business as usual on the Continent.
We have however had some time to think through these consequences and law firms with international clients and offices beyond Europe should be looking towards the fast rising economic growth in Asia, Africa as well as the Middle East.
In fact much of the deal-doing of businesses from these regions occurs in London, as any casual visit to the restaurants and hotels of Mayfair or Knightsbridge these days will attest.
One Italian CEO client recently told me he sees London as his true business home – a place he can see counterparts from China, India, Qatar, South Africa. A place to meet and commune with the world of commerce and industry and get deals done efficiently. He does not see that changing dramatically post Brexit. Prospects for the use of English law and the English courts to settle international disputes continue to be positive, with our long tradition for transparency, fairness and certainty in the application of those laws and in the judgments of our courts being the best PR we could hope for.
Closer to home, a number of our clients have already made their Brexit plans, or have at least advanced a strategy. These include the opening of regulated entities and offices in Amsterdam, Paris, Frankfurt or Luxembourg. Very few appear to be contemplating move of headquarters or transfer of an undue proportion of employees, although views may change as the process unravels, particularly in the extremely unlikely event the UK decides to restrict the movement of City employees of EU origin, a move that really would spell disaster for our financial services industry.
Yes, there is uncertainty and it is not easy to predict the impact on our clients and transactions, but the year has started with more activity in the corporate sector and there are signals that foreign investment in the UK is picking up. We need to adapt to change and develop our practices to meet the needs of a fast changing world. We lawyers are a conservative lot, but it’s time to get with the new agenda.
As for the politicians? We have EU negotiators who show signs of caring more for the preservation intact of the institution they love so dearly above the national economic interests of their home nations and our domestic political parties in opposition setting strict criteria for supporting a deal which appear almost impossible to achieve. Interesting times ahead.
Read more from The Lawyer‘ Brexit experts here.