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Maria Fernanda Florez was an associate with Herbert Smith (legacy) from 2005 to 2006, working as a foreign lawyer in London and having completed a master’s at the London School of Economics. She is now thrilled to work for a company promoting foreign language learning.

 

What is it like living in Bogota?

I love it! It is at quite a high altitude so it can get quite cold, but it is a fabulous city. Mind you, the rest of Colombia is great, too!

Did you always want to be a lawyer?

No, there was no one in my family who was a lawyer. They were mostly engineers, economists, researchers. I was good at social sciences at school. Then in 1991 Colombia introduced a new constitution which incorporated individual human rights. The school had to teach kids about the constitution and so when I get told off at home, I would plead that my constitutional rights were being breached! I studied law and particularly enjoyed learning about law in different jurisdictions. I wanted to carry through into my practice, which, happily, has happened.

How did you enjoy your course at the LSE?

I did my LLM there. I had wanted to go to Europe and London was my dream. I wanted exposure to diversity. The LSE was very international, which I liked. It was a great course, too. I learned a lot but I also wanted to have fun!


How did the opportunity to work for HSF come about?

That was a challenge because the Colombian law firms, including the one I was then working for, tended to have arrangements with law firms in New York, not in London. Before going to London, I wrote to a number of law firms and, happily, was invited to an interview with Herbert Smith Freehills. Three partners of the Corporate group, including Nigel Farr, met me. We had a discussion, but I had no idea whether I was making an impression because I was so nervous until Nigel invited me for coffee and said, ‘See you next year’. I was over the moon, and being Latin, wanted to hug him to thank him!  

I then joined as a foreign lawyer, and was only due to stay a year, but it got extended. It was an amazing experience. I was like a sponge, learning everything I could. The firm was also so welcoming. It was so diverse, that I never felt out of place. 

Why did you leave?

I had to leave because of Brexit, which led to a number of transactions being put on hold. The firm tried to keep me, but by then I thought it would be good to go back to Colombia. My now husband was here. It was bittersweet for me, but I keep in regular touch with my former colleagues.

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Who do you remember as having the most influence on you?

Nigel [Farr] definitely, because I joined his team and he wanted me to stay. I also was helped a lot by Ian Williams, who was the first lawyer who introduced himself. Shantanu Naravane, who has recently been made partner and with whom I shared an office. 

Why did you move to Open English/Next U?

Two reasons: the passion of the executive team when I discussed with them the work and, second, the fact that it is an Edtech company where you combine two worlds: technology where you have to maintain, improve and update a platform to be able to compete and grow, and education where you can make a difference and change lives (a very important impact on people’s personal and professional growth).

We have different lines of business – Open English, a platform for teaching English to adults and to children; Next U, focusing on new trends such as programming, advertisements and so on; and Open Mundo, dedicated to expanding knowledge in other languages, such as Spanish, French and Portuguese.

What makes the business different?

We are well-known and have been operating in Latam for more than 10 years, as well as in parts of Canada and the US. We are expanding into India, Turkey and other places. We have native speaker teachers, a value proposition that other comparable companies don’t offer. We are growing into new markets and that is what is amazing and challenging for me. I love the global nature of the role.

What is your role?

I manage the legal affairs worldwide. Each jurisdiction is different. For some you need approval, some you don’t. We have to do analysis, maybe through an M&A, or licence, or we can enter from scratch. IP, taxation, compliance – all kinds of issues that fall to me. We use external law firms, where necessary, depending on the jurisdiction and then maybe local lawyers. I manage all the teams and the firms worldwide.

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The firm (HSF) was also so welcoming. It was so diverse, that I never felt out of place.

Do you do that all from Colombia?

After Covid, everything changed. Previously, I travelled a lot. However, I was already in a hybrid role – partly in the office, and partly at home. So, with Covid, I just switched to operating full-time from my home. I adapted easily, but I always make sure that I separate work from home. You need to set priorities and manage your time.

What are the challenges of operating from Colombia, if any?

A common comment from foreign entities that enter the Colombia market and Latam in general is that people are excellent professionals and hard workers, but the level of English is not great. People lose great opportunities because of that. Even getting people in Latam that speak English well enough for day-to-day legal-related activities remains a challenge.

What are your ambitions?

That is an interesting question because I think goals are not fixed in time. A few years ago, my dream was to be a partner at a law firm. Now, it also includes fulfilling my passions, one of which is mastering other countries’ legal systems, how to expand services and products abroad and having the possibility to interact with different countries. Another thing that I enjoy is mentoring and training people. Finally, now that I have a family of my own, my personal ambition is to help them achieve their ambitions and goals and be there to support them in the process.

What do you like to do outside work?

I like to walk and hike. It gives me the chance to think, clear my mind and be creative. I take advantage of the fact that my home is in the mountains and is surrounded by a forest making it easier to enjoy constantly. It is also a great opportunity to take a look at the city from the outside, giving me a new perspective on things.


Features

Alumni Matters 2023

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Introduction with Adrian Clough

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A conversation with Tim Parkes

Reflections of a former Executive Partner

How data can empower Australia’s indigenous communities

Accessing data sovereignty to empower First Nation Australians

A view from Bogota

Maria Fernanda Florez discusses her time at Herbert Smith Freehills and her latest role as director of legal at Open English/Next U

How ALT was a stepping stone for me

The journey from the earliest days of ALT to in-house senior manager

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Talking tech: The rise and regulation of generative AI

Andrea Appella outlines the attempts to put guardrails on the transformative power of artificial intelligence

Why I came back

Heather Kelly and Jon Ford talk about their time away from Herbert Smith Freehills and what brought them back

In-house In-touch

Navigating a new business world with General Counsels Henrietta Rowe and Minchu Wang

Expanding horizons

The alumni guide to building a career as a non-executive director

Firm Highlights 2023

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Alumni Matters 2023

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