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Catapulting an international career from Canberra

Catapulting an international career from Canberra

Anne MacGregor

A scholarship to study an LLM at the University of Hamburg in the early ’90s was the just ticket that Canberra local Anne MacGregor needed to blaze a legal career on the international stage. 

Newly admitted and armed with a law degree from ANU and burning desire to kick-start her career in Europe, Anne MacGregor set off for the University of Hamburg in Germany in 1991.

The scholarship she had received from the German government to undertake an LLM for foreign students was only meant to last one year. However, Ms MacGregor was able to extend her scholarship for another 12 months and would remain in Europe until 2000.

It was the beginning of a career that has spanned many cities around the world and would later see the long-time Australian expat act for the Government of Mexico in Free Trade Agreement negotiations with the EU and advise multinational mega corporation Mars on regulatory compliance under European law.

“I did a combined degree in Arts/Law and my arts degree was German and history. It was actually a love of Europe and the German that took me to Europe,” Ms MacGregor said.

“My interest in international trade law began with my master’s thesis at Hamburg University and then in 1993 I undertook an internship with the Directorate General for Trade in the European Commission.”

Today Ms MacGregor has over 20 years’ experience as a practising lawyer abroad. She has worked with two magic circle firms and a host of top-tiers, and is a respected antitrust and competition law expert based in Brussels.

Speaking to Lawyers Weekly about her international journey in law, the born and raised Canberran said that the legal landscape in Europe was very different when she first started out scouting for work in the early ‘90s. She noted that back then more lawyers tended to be general EU law specialists, rather than exclusively trade or competition law experts.

“I was at a disadvantage because I didn’t have an EU citizenship so whoever agreed to take me on had to get me a work permit.

“At that time, the firms were also doing more trade law than they do now and a large number of international law firms had international teams based in Brussels, who were practicing EU law, primarily competition law,” Ms MacGregor said.

“This was before the advent of the internet so what I did was get a list of all of the law firms and I sent my CV to all of them with a covering letter,” she said.

It was a long shot but one law firm responded to her introduction, looking to hire a native English speaker for its Brussels office who also had good German language skills.

Ms MacGregor said that she was given great independence in that first role, working alone in an office with one other legal support person, and being remotely supervised by a firm partner who was located in the head office in Germany’s Black Forest area of Freiburg im Breisgau.

“Really it was me and a secretary in Brussels for that regional German firm. The firm also had a partner who was a member of the European Parliament and in Brussels all the time, but his office was not with our office as he was based in the Parliament,” she said.

Ms MacGregor was later hired to work for another German firm, Deringer, in 1996 just before its elite merger with Freshfields and Bruckhaus. The opportunity, still from Belgium, gave the young lawyer exposure to more big ticket deals that she said she relished.

Within about four years, however, she was itching for change and decided to move to the US to work towards passing the New York bar.

“When I got to America, I pitched myself as more of a trade lawyer, although by that stage I was a bit of everything. I then got a job in a US law firm for trade practice in Washington DC,” Ms MacGregor said.

“I was in DC on 11 September 2001, and there was an immediate downturn in the economy right afterwards. By that stage I had already been looking to come back to Brussels, so I decided to apply to firms back in Europe,” she said.

After returning to Brussels she landed a job working for Linklaters, where she remained for over five years, carving out a more focused specialisation as competition lawyer. The work saw Ms MacGregor regularly dealing with the European Commission again but this time with the Directorate General for Competition.

Five years later, Ms MacGregor said that she started to feel exhausted by the unrelenting demands of life in BigLaw, with its three-month blocks of 18-hour days. In 2007 she left her job to try her hand at journalism.

Ms MacGregor joined a start-up news service founded by another Australian expat living in Brussels and concurrently undertook reporting duties, as well as acting as the company’s in-house counsel.

“By that stage I had no life, there was just a lot of work. I had good savings because I had no time to spend any money and I thought to myself, ‘You can do this – you won’t have as much money, but you can do this’.”

“I had a really good time working as a journalist at MLex but after about a year-and-a-half I felt there was not much more for me to learn, so in the European autumn of 2008 I moved back into private practice,” she said.

Ms MacGregor returned to practice and continues to live in Brussels. Today she is with the international law firm Dechert LLP.

For those young practitioners wanting to take their own career abroad to Europe, Ms MacGregor said making it is about being very determined and really wanting it. In this respect, she suggested that strong foreign language skills are very important, especially those targeting continental Europe, as opposed to the UK. 

“I always really wanted it even though I knew at the beginning that I was at a disadvantage. Because I didn’t have EU citizenship, I was a difficult hire for many law firms as they had to go through all the hoops of getting me a work permit.”

“What saved me in the early days was that I had very strong German language skills and a German masters behind me – that was what made me attractive to the German firms in particular,” Ms MacGregor said.

Her latest side project, which has been underway for a few months now, is a company called Knowledge Nomads, which runs professional conferences for lawyers in Europe over the summer.

Ms MacGregor said she wanted to deliver a holiday conference package to other international lawyers looking to meet their CPD or CLE requirements in an interesting location.

“I want to offer a program with legal education, but also have a program that is culturally and socially fun and interesting.

“What I also tried to do with the academic programming is to have topics that are of interest to all lawyers, no matter their specialisation. One topic for example is ‘law in the age of hyper-connectivity’ and there are many issues under that heading which will have broader appeal,” she said.

The inaugural Knowledge Nomads conference will be held in Berlin from 23 to 29 July for members of the legal profession. 

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