This article was originally published in Lloyd’s List on March 9, 2022. The piece was written by editor David Osler.
"Law firm has grown to the point where it is clearly bigger and more diversified than its former peer group. But industry remains at the core of what it does", says Christine Ezcutari
‘Shipping is our historic core and remains something we very much focus on’ - Ezcutari
Harry Theochari was one of the biggest names on the UK shipping law scene, and for once that billing isn’t a platitude.
Somehow maintaining an affable mien throughout his high-pressure job as head of shipping at Norton Rose Fulbright, he also gave much time to voluntary commitments such as chairing Maritime UK, and behind-the-scenes work advising the UK government on Brexit.
Global head of transport Christine Ezcutari has taken on his job following his retirement last year, and moreover has been doing it from Paris rather than London.
She is entirely aware of the standing of her predecessor, who maintains a relationship with the firm through a consultancy role. Indeed, when asked how it feels to replace him, she is quick to insist she hasn’t.
“Harry is such a character, I’m not here to replace Harry. I’m so glad we are still working with him,” she says. “But it’s good to give a new impulse. I obviously will do things a bit differently. But it’s not changing so much, because the people are still the same.”
Ms Ezcutari is a career lifer with NRF and its predecessor, which she joined as a young lawyer in its Paris office in December 1996. The French capital remains her home.
She is qualified in both French and English law, and is also an advocate, with the right of audience in the French courts.
Prior to the pandemic, she used to visit London almost every week, as well as attending events such as London International Shipping Week, and hopes to resume that kind of schedule now that pandemic-related travel restrictions are being eased.
“We need to reconsolidate because of the virus situation, and we need to see people. There’s nothing to replace that. Zoom and Teams are very good but it’s not the same without the contact.”
Her practice centres on ship finance, especially the kind of tax-lease transactions that were a mainstay of French ship finance until they fell out of favour in the wake of the global financial crisis.
Other transport sectors
NRF is still seen as the specialist in ship finance and its roster of clients includes many big investment banks that do shipping deals.
Nevertheless, it is also active in other transport sectors, including rail and aviation, and has expanded dramatically internationally over the last decade, making it obviously larger than anyone else in its traditional peer group.
It has sometimes given the impression that it is no longer wants to be seen as ‘a shipping firm’ in the old school sense, repositioning itself as more of a broader corporate lawyer. Ms Ezcutari thinks that is a misconception.
“We are a shipping firm, but we are not just a shipping firm. We became very big, but thanks to our origins 220 years ago, we are very much a shipping firm. We have a sectorial approach, which means we don’t believe we can be good in just any category of law. Shipping is our historic core and remains something we very much focus on.”
What this entails is full capabilities in all aspects of shipping, from ship finance to litigation, corporate work, competition law, or whatever it is that clients need. It wants to work for shipowners, but not exclusively on ‘shipping work’ as it is usually categorised.
“We believe it is really important to know the industry. To be frank with you, any lawyer can do a very nice loan agreement. You don’t need to be a shipping lawyer to do that. What is important to our clients is to have knowledge of the industry. You don’t do a loan agreement for a ship the same way you would do a loan agreement for your house. This is key to our practice.”
For instance, NRF is currently working with a major shipowner on its energy transition plans, with partners from its energy practice talking to the board about investment, regulation and risk, and encouraging a long-term perspective.
“We have expertise we can sell, not just shipping expertise but energy expertise. To couple both, I think it’s only us who can do that at the moment.”
Ms Ezcutari’s strategy will also include further expansion. Where many London firms also have offices in key European and Asian shipping centres, NRF is arguably the only one with something approaching true global coverage.
That has been attained through mergers and acquisitions, which saw it take over Canada’s Ogilvy Renault and South Africa’s Deneys Reitz in 2010 and Fulbright & Jaworski of the US in 2013.
But weight is not just a matter of geographical spread, and she will also seek to strengthen specific functions. For instance, while NRF’s Canadian offices are strong on charterparty and litigation work, she has identified the need to beef up its ship finance offer.
“My job is to look at it, see the need, see what we can do,” she says.
Risen up the ladder
Ms Ezcutari hails from southwest France, and to this day she talks in a regional accent that she says is instantly discernible to native French speakers. The surname indicates Basque heritage.
She was raised in the town of Marmande, between Bordeaux and Toulouse, with no family ties to shipping. Both her parents were employees of dairy manufacturer Danone.
She studied at Bordeaux University. Thanks to the Erasmus programme, she spent a year at Warwick University in the UK in 1987, and then qualified in English law at what was then the College of Law in Lancaster Gate.
After completing a training contract with British firm Denton Hall, she landed the job with Norton Rose, as it was then branded, and has risen up the ladder ever since.
Ms Ezcutari lives with her family in Paris, 10 minutes on foot from the office. She has two children, one a university student and one still at high school.
Outside of work, she loves theatre, travelling and music, including the 1980s pop music of her generation and classical.
She also reads extensively, with a penchant for detective fiction from Agatha Christie to Scandi noir, as well as classic French authors such as Balzac.
She can also sometimes be found at rugby matches, thanks to growing up in a part of the world where that form of football is more popular than soccer.
Like Mr Theochari, Ms Ezcutari also undertakes industry representative roles. She works closely with the French ministry of transport, and sits on a commission reviewing current shipping legislation.
She is also a Chevalier de l’ordre national du Mérite, a prestigious award for civic service.