City law: a global business

Finbarr Bermingham finds out about some of Norton Rose Fulbright's exciting overseas work from a senior member of the team

Partner Chris Brown is head of the infrastructure, mining and structured trade and commodity finance team at Norton Rose Fulbright in London. He has been with the firm for ten years. Norton Rose Fulbright is an emerging markets specialist, and Chris's team offers clients advice on infrastructure, mining and energy projects across six continents. In the last two years, Norton Rose Fulbright has expanded into Australia, Canada, Africa, Latin America and Central Asia and as much as 90 per cent of Chris's work is outside the UK. "I love travelling and meeting new people in the different working environments emerging markets offer," he explains. But how can such a breadth of opportunity be open to an English-qualified lawyer? Says Chris: "English law is used all over the world because it's a very certain and established legal system - English courts are seen as being very transparent and fair - and because London is still the world's financial centre. It gives firms like Norton Rose Fulbright, with significant operations in London, a big advantage in the international legal market."

We asked Chris to tell us about some of the work Norton Rose Fulbright is doing in three of the most exciting geographical regions in which it has a presence.

Russia and the former Soviet Union

It can be challenging to work in this region because, in many ways, its legal systems are very different to those used in the UK. Sometimes, in countries like Albania and the Ukraine for example, we partner local law firms who have an intricate knowledge of the local legal system. Where possible, however, we use the expertise of our own regional offices. We have a big office in Russia, for example, and our London experts will often spend time working there on projects in this region as part of Norton Rose Fulbright's commitment to mobilising people internationally.

We do a lot of work with Russian banks, both within Russia and further afield. At the moment we're working with a group of lenders on financing a solar power station in the Ukraine. It can sometimes be challenging to obtain rights over borrower's assets on projects like these for our lender clients as security for the loans they provide to fund them. On one recent project, we were struggling to get security for a group of banks over assets including project bank accounts and heavy machinery, like cranes. We solved the problem by structuring the transaction so that project revenues were collected offshore, and by using a sale and leaseback structure for the heavy machinery, which means that, technically, the lenders owned it and leased it back to the borrower. Taking these steps made it easier for the lenders to hold rights over these assets to protect the money they were investing.

We also have an office in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, where we've been doing a lot of work in public sector lending. For instance, we advised Samruk-Kazyna, the Kazakh state-owned investment fund, on a US$15 billion (£9.5 billion) loan from China. We've also been advising the government of Kazakhstan on some production sharing agreements relating to the Caspian Sea oil fields, which are among the biggest in the world.

Africa

The infrastructure boom in Africa shows no sign of slowing down; if anything, it's gathering pace. We're seeing a lot of investment from China, Europe and America into the continent and Norton Rose Fulbright has a big presence there, particularly since Norton Rose South Africa (incorporated as Deneys Reitz Inc), one of South Africa's largest law firms, joined the group last year.

Our work in Africa is varied, but one of the big challenges at the moment is mobilising local individual savings, which are tied up in retail banks, in order to finance infrastructure projects. I recently worked for a European development agency-backed bank on a scheme to guarantee the repayment of loans made by banks to finance projects in certain circumstances. Finding ways to remove some of the risk encourages local banks to make these loans.

The range of projects we work on is massive. One of my clients is an investment bank that is financing development of vital infrastructure projects on Buggala Island, in the middle of Lake Victoria. This includes ferry routes and ports, roads and electricity facilities. We've done a lot of work over the past few years in Angola for Sonangol, its state energy company, raising large sums of money for investment in oil and gas projects in the country.

Africa's rapid economic development means we often advise governments there. Recently, I advised the Liberian government on private sector participation in the country's electricity sector and the potential refurbishment of a hydroelectric scheme.

Middle East

Norton Rose Fulbright is currently Islamic Finance News' Islamic Finance Law Firm of the Year, an award it has held for a number of years. We have three offices in the Gulf and work extensively with Middle Eastern clients, advising them on the legal and commercial aspects of large infrastructure and commodity deals. Deals are often structured differently in the Middle East than in other parts of the world because they usually need to be compliant with Islamic law. Many of the regional banks finance such deals and we often advise our clients on how to approach them for financing, or on using a combination of Islamic and conventional debt.

One project I've been involved in, which used a novel project finance structure, is the construction of new terminals at Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan. We acted for the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, which together financed the terminals' construction. The finance raised was a mixture of conventional debt and Islamic debt, one of the world's first examples of this kind of financing. It was a very interesting project to be part of and it involved a lot of creative thinking.

At the moment, we're acting for a group of Middle Eastern contractors, operators and investors on the construction of Medina Airport in Saudi Arabia. This project is viewed as very important in the Islamic world because it will help with the transit of people to Medina, one of Islam's holiest cities. Another important client for us is the Jordanian Atomic Energy Commission. We recently advised the commission on a big uranium mining contract, as well as the procurement of a research reactor and two nuclear power stations.

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