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CEE Building Blocks: Baker & McKenzie’s Dan Matthews Says Good-Bye Featured

Bit by bit the first wave of expatriate lawyers that helped CEE and CIS legal markets transition from the chaotic end of communism to the (more or less) functioning capitalist present subsides, as one by one those lawyers retire and withdraw. Now comes the announcement that Baker & McKenzie Partner Dan Matthews, who played a formative role in the firm’s Moscow, Baku, and Istanbul offices, will be retiring and returning to the United States on July 1, 2016.

We take the opportunity to review the career and contributions of Matthews, one of CEE’s undisputed Building Blocks

A Winding Road to Istanbul

Matthews already had nine years of practice in Florida under his belt when, in 1995, he agreed to join Baker & McKenzie’s Moscow office. In Russia in the mid-90s, he recalls, “everything was in flux, and there hadn’t been many private lawyers. There certainly weren’t many established practices. It was quite an adjustment for me. In the US there’s only a limited range of possible outcomes for most legal issues. In Russia, you had a lot more freedom to structure a transaction because you had more unresolved variables, more things open to negotiation. When I first went to Russia ... the transactions [I was] working on were often the first time they had ever been done there. Back in the 1990s when I started in Moscow, we didn’t even have a Civil Code to provide a legal basis for private property. The Civil Code came out in late 1996. And that was the first legal recognition of private property. So here you’re trying to take security over collateral, and there isn’t even a firm foundation for the concept of private property! It was tricky, because the legal landscape presented so many barriers you had to work around and lots of potential pitfalls.”

In 1998, however, the ruble collapsed and the Russian economy went into a tailspin. As Matthews recalls, Baker & McKenzie was in the process of opening its office in Baku at the time and was looking for Partners interested in moving to the Azerbaijani capital. “My thoughts were, ‘OK, my practice in Russia has disappeared for the time being and we have this opportunity ... I’ll take it!’,” Matthews laughs, and he says that as he was already working in the oil and gas sector, “it seemed a natural fit.”

For the next two years he divided his time between Moscow and Baku, before committing to the city by the Caspian Sea full time in 2000.

At one point, midway through Matthews’ 13 years with Baker & McKenzie in Baku, he crossed paths with a prominent Turkish lawyer – Ismail Esin – in a meeting that would turn out to have significant ramifications for Baker & McKenzie, Esin’s own firm, and both lawyers individually.

Recalling that meeting, Ismail Esin says, “When I first met Dan in 2004, I was working on a project in Azerbaijan, and we had to work with a local firm, and we went to Baker & McKenzie, and he was introduced to me by a very close friend who was then the CEO of AIG in Eurasia. We started to work on the Azerbaijan project – it was a long-lasting project of I think four or five years – so that was the first contact.”

Subsequently, in 2011, another Baker & McKenzie Partner suggested that Esin talk with the firm about joining his firm with theirs, and initial conversations were encouraging. “And eventually,” Esin recalls, “I thought, ‘okay, if I’m going to join Baker & McKenzie, I need someone here in Turkey next to me who has experience with Baker and who I can trust as a person.’ And so I said, ‘I insist on Dan Matthews.’ So then I talked to Dan. I said, ‘okay Dan, you should come over; you have to help me to make this office a part of a bigger and more international organization.’ So this is how everything evolved, and one day, Dan was here!”

Matthews laughs, remembering that 2004 meeting with Esin. “I had no idea at the time we would later have this long-term relationship.” He says the resulting relationship with Esin played an important role in the eventual coming together of the two organizations. “I was part of the Baker & McKenzie team that interviewed law firms in Turkey, and Ismail already knew me, so yes, it made things easier,” he says. “Definitely. Not only was there greater trust and comfort, it helped manage everyone’s expectations. Both sides knew who they were dealing with.”

Baker & McKenzie opened its Istanbul office in 2011, with Matthews at the helm.

A Dual Role at Baker & McKenzie Istanbul

Matthews takes pride in his many years of being ranked as a top tier banking & finance lawyer, but in leading Baker & McKenzie’s Istanbul office he has limited his role to conform to the Turkish bar’s restrictions on foreign lawyers practicing in the country. As a result, he has focused primarily on training the Esin Attorney Partnership’s lawyers and developing its complementary practice groups.

According to Ismail Esin, “before joining Baker we had only four practice areas, and we were very focused on them: we were very strong in M&A, very strong in dispute resolution and arbitration and litigation, very strong in real estate, and very strong in competition. We didn’t have any other practice areas at all. After Dan joined us, he said, ‘Ismail, we have to set up other practice groups, like Tax, like Corporate Maintenance, like Intellectual Property, like ITC, things like that.’ And he contributed very much in terms of setting up those practice groups. So if I look at the office now, approximately 1/3 of the people working here are in the non-historical practices. In compliance, we are the only law firm in Turkey providing compliance services with a dedicated team.”

Esin insists, however, that Matthews was equally important in assisting with the integration of the two firms. Referring initially to the restrictions imposed by the Turkish bar, he explains: “We’ve been always very conscious with the ethical rules and everything, however this is not sufficient; [at Baker] you have to have your bookkeeping in a certain way, you have to prepare your documentation and everything in a certain way, and so on. Dan has also introduced ‘Good Morning’ messages. Every morning you receive a Good Morning message from the secretaries, [with information about] what visitors will be in the office, who is out, who’s there, etc., so we don’t have to check every time to see who’s there and who’s available. It looks simple, but it is important; and makes life easier for everyone. So this practical thing is for me part of the infrastructure of being a better-operating law firm.”

Matthews is proud of the firm’s current banking & finance team, whose work he used to guide. “The banking & finance practice is really up and running now, and they don’t need my support on foreign and international law as much as they did back when I first got here,” he says. “They are ace banking & finance lawyers – they’re really great – and I have a lot of confidence in them.”

Praise from Colleagues and Clients Alike

Those who work with Matthews speak of him in glowing terms. Hakki Can Yildiz, who joined the Esin Attorney Partnership only a few months after Matthews in 2011, is a Senior Associate working in the Competition, Information Technology & Communications, and Trade & Commerce groups. He says, “from my perspective, one of the things that Dan was most successful at was setting up this structure. For some people in Turkey, we were known only as an M&A firm, but now we are ranked in almost every category of major directories. So this is something that we achieved in a very short time.”

In addition, Yildiz notes, Matthews was extremely valuable “in terms of helping us become better lawyers.” He explains: “Foreigners, especially non-Europeans such as Americans, I think, can be so far away from the mentality of Turkey, and it is sometimes very difficult to connect with them both as clients and colleagues, but the fact that Dan has been in this part of the world for years, for decades, really helped him manage people around him, with cultural differences, he really knew how he should instruct people, how he should talk with people, where he should stop and push people, and, for example, how he should pitch for client work. He is an American – in some ways, he’s the most American a guy can be – but in other areas, in most areas that are related to what we are doing here professionally, I think he is just one of us. He thinks as if he was a Turk, as if he has been here for years, and so he paid attention to cultural differences and I think this is how he managed to be so successful.”

Yildiz is equally complimentary about Matthews’ personality, describing him as, “a very easy-going person.” He clarifies: “He not only listens to you but also is a very straightforward person when he shares his opinions with you. He tolerates mistakes and shows ways to correct them without being discouraging. He lets you deal with clients and colleagues even in the most serious and critical circumstances, and if you do make a mistake or if his assistance would really help, he does not hesitate to step in and cover you or back you up. When it is all over, he still gives you credit for what you have done in that specific matter. So, he is a very helping person but he does not like to take credit for himself. So it is very easy working with him.”

Finally, Yildiz says, “another thing with Dan is that he pays attention to quality. As you can expect, accuracy, timeliness, and richness of the content are the first things that he looks at. But he also pays attention to other qualities – for example, the one that in his view is missing in Turkey the most is to be able to give concise, specific, relevant, and to-the-point legal advice. In his words, the thing that he does not like about Turkey is what he calls ‘verbose’ Turkish lawyers, and he does his best to prevent us from using unnecessary language that does not add anything to the advice given.”

Hasmet Ozan Guner, who recently left Esin Attorney Partnership to start his own firm (see page 19), agrees about the value of Matthews’ guidance. Guner says, “he was a very good role model for me, a mentor, I would think. Before Ismail Esin joined Baker & McKenzie his firm was already very prominent in Turkey, so it is a difficult thing to transform an already-established law firm, with several decades of history, into a global system, and they managed this incredibly well. Because, you know, people already have their habits and routines, which are not always the same as Baker & McKenzie’s way of working, so it was a difficult task, I would say. Dan, together with Ismail, did it very well.”

Like Yildiz, Guner also praises Matthews’ personality and style. “I would say he’s kind of a soft power,” he said. “He doesn’t give strong reactions or provide an immediate reaction, but he rather chooses to take things slower and easier, so he takes things step by step. He is very easy to work with, I would say. Of course the legal environment isn’t undemanding anywhere in the world, so you cannot avoid that, but Dan relatively is not a demanding person, and he is an easy person to work with.”

Associate Cansu Gunel found a model in Matthews. “It was really nice to see how a foreign attorney works outside of his own jurisdiction,” she says. “Even though he’s been outside of his jurisdiction for over 20 years and even though he can’t usually give legal advice in this country, his background in law and his leadership position allows him to still provide good legal counsel to foreign clients and that showed me how a good lawyer can be a good lawyer regardless of where he’s practicing, so that’s something that I took out of my experience with him.”

Matthews’s clients are equally enthusiastic. Sureyya Ugurses, Country Legal Counsel at Citibank A.S., describes Matthews as “one of the best client-manager lawyers I have ever met” and says that he is “really good at communicating with clients and also builds trust by trying to understand their needs.” She explains: “Whenever we asked a question or needed help, he was always there to help and to find a solution with his practical thinking, and the fact that he was trying to solve the problem or trying to help us was really very valuable for us.”

In short, she says: “Finding an external lawyer who knows and understands the company, the industry it operates in, its culture, how things are done, is invaluable. This saves a lot of time and cost and makes it more likely that the advice will be accurate, relevant and, where appropriate, commercial. This is what we achieved with Baker led by Dan.”

The Future

In the short term, Matthews has agreed to act as an outside counsel to the Esin Attorney Partnership for at least the next year. Matthews explains that, in this new role, “I won’t be doing client work, but I will be providing management and client relationship support, as well as working with the lawyers in the new practice groups we’ve built over the past five years, like ITC, IP, Trade & Commerce, and other practice groups to help them grow the practices internationally. I’ve committed to coming back to Istanbul four times a year, but I’ll be in daily contact with the office.”

“I’m not going to say that my contributions to the legal community in this region were hugely significant, but for the offices where I worked, I think I had a – I’m sure I had a – a profound impact on the way they practice law, the temperament in the office, the climate in the office. I definitely impacted that. Perhaps less so in Moscow, where I was new to the region, but definitely Baku, and definitely here. My fingerprints are all over it.”

But Matthews insists that he has no intention of practicing in the United States, saying “I’ve always wanted to do other things. Before law school, I was torn between being a lawyer, a diplomat, and a real estate developer. In Florida everybody wants to develop real estate, so maybe I’ll eventually dabble in some personal real estate projects that I’ve always been interested in doing.”

Leaving His Mark

Twenty years is a significant amount of time, and Matthews’ contributions to Baker & McKenzie’s Eastern European and CIS presence are hard to miss. He himself hired several of Baker & McKenzie’s current Moscow Partners, he says, and he hired the current Managing Partner in Baku as a Trainee back in 2001. He laughs, pointing out that “the Managing Partner of the CIS offices [Sergei Voitishkin, also the Managing Partner of Baker & McKenzie’s Moscow office] was a translator in the office when I got there.”

Looking back, Matthews says, “I’m not going to say that my contributions to the legal community in this region were hugely significant, but for the offices where I worked, I think I had a – I’m sure I had a – a profound impact on the way they practice law, the temperament in the office, the climate in the office. I definitely impacted that. Perhaps less so in Moscow, where I was new to the region, but definitely Baku, and definitely here. My fingerprints are all over it.” 

In Europe, his absence will be felt. “Every day we sit together to see if everything is okay, talk for 30 minutes or so, share what’s going on, what can be done, etc., or just simply chatting,” says Ismail Esin. “He’s been a great support for our operations. We go out for dinner. He knows my family. We are not only business partners; we are friends.”

Hakki Can Yildiz expresses his gratitude for the opportunity to speak about Matthews as he plans his departure. “I think he deserves it. He’s a great guy, and we and the Turkish legal market will miss him.”

Editor’s note: Baker & McKenzie has asked that we clarify that references to it refer either to “Baker & McKenzie International, a Swiss Verein” or “Baker & McKenzie Foreign Attorney Partnership.”

In this article:

Ismail Esin - Managing Partner, Esin Attorney Partnership

Sureyya Ugurses - Country Legal Counsel, Citibank A.S. 

Cansu Gunel - Associate, Esin Attorney Partnership 

Hakki Can Yildiz - Senior Associate, Esin Attorney Partnership

Hasmet Ozan Guner - Partner, Guner | Legal 

This article was originally published in Issue 3.3 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

Last modified onWednesday, 24 August 2016 10:13
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