The Big Interview: Miriam Gonzalez

She’s an expert on EU law, has been dubbed the ‘Michelle Obama of the coalition’, and has been applauded for her tactical use of the word ‘cojones’. Miriam Gonzalez found time on a busy afternoon to speak to us about what makes an EU trade lawyer tick, and why sometimes it's important to fake it...

Miriam Gonzalez was just seven when Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died, a democratic Spain emerged from dictatorship, and an era of massive change ensued. “I feel incredibly fortunate, because my childhood – and especially my teenage years – coincided with a period in the history of Spain when we thought that anything was possible. My upbringing was set against the background of my parents and my friends’ parents telling us all that if we studied and worked hard, then there were no boundaries.”

Gonzalez is pausing to reflect on her childhood in the middle of a typically crowded day. She's just journeyed back to Dechert's offices after an appointment on the other side of London, and has another in the diary directly after we've finished speaking. Gonzalez's schedule is hectic: she's currently head of Dechert's trade and EU government affairs practice; she's also spearheading a new campaign which aims to bolster state school girls' confidence; and on top of that she deftly navigates the expectations placed on those in the public eye (we needn’t tell you she’s married to Nick Clegg).

“My childhood – and especially my teenage years – coincided with a period in the history of Spain when we thought that anything was possible.” 

Gonzalez grew up in Olmedo, a small village –“literally in the middle of nowhere”– where her father was mayor, and where there was only one school whose “students would go on to become doctors, architects and lawyers, as well as ones who were virtually illiterate.”

She was the kind of student, she says, who applied for every scholarship, and after completing a law degree at the the University of Valladolid, her efforts paid off: the Spanish ministry of foreign affairs awarded her a postgraduate scholarship to study at the prestigious College of Europe in Bruges. When this big break came along, Gonzalez recounted how she “also had an opportunity to study ecclesiastic law in Verona.” She pauses, then smiles. “So it was obvious which option I was going to choose.”

Labelled the 'Harvard Business School to the European political elite' by The Times, the College of Europe was established in 1949 by the EU's 'founding fathers', figures like Winston Churchill, Salvador de Madariaga and Paul-Henri Spaak. It was also the venue for Margaret Thatcher's controversial 1988 'Bruges Speech', which laid the foundation for British Euroscepticism.

Studying at the College gave Gonzalez her first proper encounter with multiculturalism. “It was such a melting pot of different cultures: we had people of pretty much every European nationality, and many others too, from the US, Latin America and Asia.” From this experience, Gonzalez felt she gained “an understanding of other Europeans, and the realisation that yes, we are different, but we also have a lot in common. And today, the more I work in the US and the Middle East and elsewhere, the more European I feel.”

“The more I work in the US, the Middle East and elsewhere, the more European I feel.” 

Afterwards, life didn't quite live up to that heady array of expectations that Gonzalez left Olmedo with. She started out doing a couple of jobs that “everybody does in the beginning: very low grade, badly paid and completely boring!” However, Gonzalez's second year at the College of Europe was focused on telecoms regulation – a market which was fast moving towards liberalisation at the time – and this specialism proved fruitful: British Telecom offered her a job as a regulatory adviser.

She got into trade more by chance than design. Having passed the exam to get into the European Commission, Gonzalez found herself presented with the enviable opportunity of being lead EU negotiator on a major WTO telecoms agreement. She was just 27 at the time. “It was the very first time in my life that I did something and thought ‘wow I’m good at this’.” These negotiations stand out as her proudest moment, not least because her team was often dramatically outnumbered. “We succeeded with very little support – we had to confront US teams of 25 people on the other side of the table, when on our side there were often just three of us!” Good teamwork, Gonzalez soon learnt, is the key to success.

“The best international trade lawyers are the ones who understand both Anglo-Saxon common law and the civil law of the Napoleonic Code, as it were.” 

After a seven-year stint as Middle East adviser to the EU's External Relations Commissioner, she made the jump to a law firm, along with a hop across the English Channel. It was not a particularly difficult move, says Gonzalez, for a few reasons. First, given her track-record and affinity for the subject, it was clear that she'd target a firm with an established trade practice. Second, trade is a “truly international” area of law which means that theoretically it allows you to work anywhere in the world. Third, Gonzalez knew that working in London –“the epicentre of legal services in Europe”– would give her plenty to do.

For other European students with an eye on the UK legal market the move might be harder, concedes Gonzalez – some areas (like the Bar) come with significant changes in both legal systems and culture, which have to be accommodated. However, the benefit of mastering two legal systems is clear to Gonzalez. “The best international trade lawyers are the ones who understand both Anglo-Saxon common law and the civil law of the Napoleonic Code, as it were.”

Gonzalez feels that trends in trade law hint at where the legal profession is heading more generally. “In the future the profession will be less isolated, less about academic interpretations, and more about practical solutions.” Take sanctions, for instance: a good example of the law being practical. “Taxpayers are less and less willing to subsidize military intervention abroad,” says Gonzalez. “And so regulators are creating a new army of people without weapons, and that can have a tremendous effect in some countries.”

While Gonzalez is full of praise for her new home of London, she feels there is one area where Brits miss out when it comes to EU law and international business: language skills. “A client may be headquartered in France, have a subsidiary in the UK, and be trading with Italy. That means you're dealing with three different enforcement agencies, and being able to find solutions for your clients may depend on being able to speak to each one in its own language.”

“It's clear that law firms are not doing enough [to improve diversity]” 

Gonzalez’s career success is impressive. That this success is so frequently noted reveals a disappointing truth about the legal profession: it's still failing to get enough women to the top. “It's clear that law firms are not doing enough,” says Gonzalez. “If you look at most firms, there's a big intake of women at trainee level, and then it peaks, and then it starts to drop, and then it drops a lot if you look at the equity partner ranks.” Within the UK's top 100 firms women make up just 9.4% of the equity partnership.

Having women's initiatives is all very good, says Gonzalez, but it's a bit of a 'chicken or egg' scenario – these programmes are unlikely to work properly until the number of women at the top increases. She dismissed the various excuses which are sometimes trotted out about the legal industry in particular that make it harder for women to break through. “Some people say 'well, it's different for lawyers because the years when you need to make a big career jump are the same years when women may be wanting to take maternity leave. But that applies to a lot of professions, from medicine to physics. So that can't be an excuse.”

Re-evaluating initiatives for mothers who return to work would be a step in the right direction, she feels. Despite some good intentions, Gonzalez tells me that part-time schedules still don't work smoothly in practice, and reveals that many young lawyers make the decision to work part-time for a year or two, only to end up working full-time regardless – and for half of their original salary.

Gonzalez has had three children, all at different stages in her career, and she strongly encourages expectant mothers to draw upon the experience of those who've already gone through the process. “You are not on your own when you do something like that. There are lots of women who know what the traps and difficulties are. Ask them for advice!”

“I learnt to be self-confident by faking it.” 

'Inspiring Women' is a new government campaign for which Gonzalez was the architect. It sprang from the simple idea of getting inspirational women to visit girls in state schools in order to boost their confidence and encourage them to aim high in life. It has been a success, and has now amassed around 9,000 volunteers.

State school girls' lack of confidence is something that Gonzalez has repeatedly flagged up throughout the campaign. Is the campaign making a difference? “When you're doing something like this you're not necessarily aiming for immediate results. You have to believe in a kind of magic. You're hoping to leave something behind, which will stick in someone's mind, so that at some point that person will think 'if they can do it then why can't I?'”

Gonzalez's chief piece of advice stands in stark contrast to the cheesy recommendation to 'be yourself' which has become a cliché among recruiters and trainees. “You need to learn how to fake self-confidence. I've been talking to girls in state schools and I always say to them, 'look, it's fantastic that you're asking me where I got my self-confidence from, because it shows that you assume I have self-confidence. But I learnt to be self-confident by faking it. And when you fake it enough – with hard work and by rehearsing – at some point that fake self-confidence becomes real self-confidence.” Well, we agree with Miriam.

 

Those interested in volunteering for the 'Inspiring Women' campaign can send an email to: [email protected]

 

Miriam Gonzalez was speaking to the Chambers Student Guide's Paul Rance.

This feature was first published in our May 2014 newsletter.