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Pat English: ‘If you need some time to figure out the answer, say so’

AUTHOR(S): Pat English
PRACTICE AREA GROUP: International Business
DATE: 18.09.2017

Pat English is head of Matheson’s International Business Group and co-head of the firm's US Business and Inward Investment Groups. Matheson is headquartered in Dublin with a British office in London and US offices in New York, Palo Alto and San Francisco.

The firm employs more than 650 people, including 80 partners and tax principals and more than 350 legal and tax professionals. English works primarily with international clients seeking to do business in Ireland and advises companies establishing operations here. His areas of expertise include international corporate reorganisations, pre-and post-integration transactions and cross-border mergers.

Are you where you expected to be in your career?

I can’t say I ever really had a “plan” as such. I qualified as a solicitor in January 2004. I arrived at Matheson as a 20-year-old intern in 1998 with very little exposure to the realities of life in a large commercial business, let alone a law firm.

I just put the head down and tried to learn as much as I could from that point forward. Nearly 20 years later, I have travelled pretty much the full journey at the firm, from intern to trainee, trainee to solicitor, solicitor to associate, associate to partner, and partner to group head.

I am also lucky enough to have spent time as the firm’s resident counsel and head of our US office in New York from 2009 to 2011. In addition to my role as head of the International Business Group, I also continue in my role as co-head of the firm's US business and inward investment groups, and spend a number of weeks a year in that context in the US and Europe visiting clients and referring law firms in particular.

What was the best career advice you got along the way?

One piece of advice that has always stuck with me came from Liam Quirke, former managing partner and now chairman of the firm, but then simply “the boss” when I was his trainee in the tax group in the early 2000s. “Clients want advice, not information” was his mantra and that is something which all lawyers would do well to remember in every engagement with their clients. Somewhat related to that, don’t forget that we are in the solutions business.

Proud as you might be at the beautiful expression you have used in describing in detail the problem, the key piece of the interaction with the client is the solution. When a client comes asking whether his or her suggested approach to a particular issue works, if you believe it doesn’t, then say so, respectfully and briefly, before outlining an approach that would work to get them to where they want to go.

When dealing with clients, start with the answer. If you don’t have the answer, don’t be afraid to say so. Given the pace at which everyone works these days and the instant nature of communication, there can be a tendency to panic if the answer can’t be delivered instantly.

Good advice is always better than bad advice or no advice and if you need to take some time to figure out the answer and then give the advice based on that answer, then say so.

Based on your own experience, what are your top career tips?

Learn the trade. I remember one time a few years back being in a taxi leaving Logan Airport in Boston where the city was doing extensive – and by all accounts endless – works on the tunnel connecting the airport to the city. There on a billboard was the expression “Rome wasn’t built in a day” followed by something along the lines of “because if it was, we'd have hired their contractors”.

Going through the process of qualifying as a lawyer and then building up a bank of knowledge, but more importantly experience and judgment, takes time, and much as we are all now always in a rush to do everything, some things just take time.

How would you define your work style, and how has this evolved over the years?

I would like to think that I have a relatively calm and relaxed manner and that I bring a pragmatic and practical approach to advising clients and dealing with people. I am not afraid to express a view or to countenance various alternative approaches to complex issues and I certainly could never be accused, I hope, of taking myself too seriously.

Above all else, I try to keep it as simple as possible. That combination has certainly served me well in my relationships with clients and colleagues alike over the years. Don’t, however, expect of any that if you see me in Croke Park if Cork are involved in proceedings.

In terms of managing teams and individuals, what are your insights?

Treat people with respect and like adults at all times. Collaborate. I am very fortunate to be working with incredibly talented people; to not work collaboratively with each other in this kind of environment and in the process to miss the opportunities that such collaboration can bring is a real sin.

Look after your people and lead by example. Be available for consults with your people when they need your input and be prepared to get (back) into the gritty detail in the trenches in individual transactions as and when required. That is often the fun bit.

Be genuine. You can’t expect to build up mutual relationships of trust and confidence without being genuine.

What about communication and negotiating the typical ups and downs of working life?

Communication is obviously critical, but even more so clarity in that communication. You have to understand what you are asking for on the one hand but on the other, you also absolutely need to understand what you are being asked to do, whether it be in an interaction with a colleague or a client.

I have always tried to instil in our trainees in particular the philosophy of making sure you never leave a room having been asked to do something by someone without absolutely understanding what in fact it is that you are being asked to do. The icing on the cake comes where you see people building on that by coming back with follow-up questions which then elicit the instructing questions from colleagues (and later clients) which perhaps we and they should have been asking in the first instance.

Has networking played an important part in your career?

Networking is absolutely critical in our business. Very often, the word “networking” connotes cocktail parties and corporate events which are all well and good but effective networking (and related marketing) in my experience means targeted or focused marketing.

More particularly, start with your own clients and treat them as the crown jewels. Too often, people can spend all their time chasing prospects while forgetting to look after their own existing clients who should be the bedrock of any business such as ours where repeat business is so critical in the first instance.

If you had to choose another career tomorrow, what would it be?

If I could devise a solution (that I could then monetise) to simultaneously resolve the problems of too little time in the day and the chaos of Dublin’s traffic, I would retire in due course a very happy and perhaps wealthy man.

Published in the Sunday Business Post on 17 September 2017.

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