Follow us

Nicola Heaney relates how her time with Herbert Smith Freehills in Belfast, and her participation in the earliest days of ALT, set her up for her subsequent career. “Joining HSF was the best decision I ever took,” she says.

I don’t remember ever wanting to ‘be’ anything else growing up but a lawyer. Because I also like – and am good at – languages, I studied law and Spanish at Queen’s University Belfast.

After I graduated, I trained and worked in a local firm in Belfast practising mostly civil litigation. I dealt with all aspects of case management, drafting and issuing legal proceedings, and saw the cases through to court. However, after qualifying, I did not feel I was growing or learning as much as I needed and did not see much prospect of career development in that area of law.

When the opportunity arose to join a world-class disputes practice such as that of Herbert Smith Freehills, and to benefit from the training and resources it could provide, it seemed like a no-brainer. I applied for a position even though I was only one-year qualified and had no experience of commercial law. Happily for me, I was taken on.

When I joined the firm in 2012, it was just one year after the firm’s trailblazing opening in Belfast. The firm’s Belfast office was still quite small at the time at around 50 people and ALT did not exist as a distinct brand or global team. In those early days, the team’s initial focus was disputes work for the firm’s global client base and efforts were directed at embedding new technologies and workflows in order to deliver large-scale document review as efficiently as possible. 

Initially, I worked on large-scale commercial disputes – from commercial litigation and international arbitration to FCA investigations. When the Belfast office expanded into delivering corporate work, in early 2013, I was asked to go on secondment to the in-house legal team at Man Group in London, together with one other solicitor and four legal assistants, whom we supervised. I had no prior investment funds experience and it was my first time doing noncontentious work. I also found myself very much embedded in a client team for the first time – so it was very much learnon- the-job. The project involved drafting, negotiating and updating a large volume of documents across approximately 300 funds domiciled in multiple legal jurisdictions.

This experience really built the foundation of my investment funds knowledge that I still use on a daily basis today. It also was my first time working on regulatory implementation and allowed me to work closely with operational, product strategy and sales teams, and become a business-aligned lawyer. We were supposed to be there for two or three months to do a one-off project, but we ended up working on the project, on and off, for almost two years.

embed image

The intention was that I would then move to London to be embedded in HSF’s investment funds team, but I was then offered the opportunity of a secondment to BlackRock’s London team for a period of three months. Having thoroughly enjoyed the secondment, Blackrock offered me a full-time role. By then, I had also met my partner, which meant a return to Belfast was out of the question.

While I had not intended to leave Herbert Smith Freehills, and will always be very grateful for the experience I gained at the firm, I also feel that one should grasp opportunities when they come along. I had settled in well at BlackRock and had made friends and was also very excited about a career in asset management. I would go on to spend eight years there during which time BlackRock’s funds legal team continued to instruct my previous colleagues at HSF – for example on AIFMD implementation and rollout of regulatory changes impacting distribution in Switzerland.

I left BlackRock earlier this year following an internal move which led to me having a regulatory change management role (rather than day-to-day advisory). However, I realised I missed the variety of transactional work and so, when an opportunity came up (another opportunity!) to join Macquarie – I jumped at the chance.

Quote image

Looking back, I also appreciate the value of being part of an innovative market-leading alternative legal services team at HSF Belfast. Those early days of the HSF Belfast office were very exciting and solutions-focussed and I saw first-hand what it meant to push boundaries.

Currently, I am a senior manager at Macquarie Asset Management and, as a lawyer, I am specifically aligned to the public investments business spanning the multi-asset, equities and fixed income asset classes. I work closely with the distribution (client solutions) and fund operations teams. In this role I am closer to the business I support (both literally and metaphorically). This was hugely important to me; the legal team I am part of is genuinely embedded within the public investments business and I am able to see the impact I make and the value I add.

I have also taken a great interest in ESG issues and have gained a certificate in ESG investing. This was mainly to give myself a foundational understanding or degree of fluency so that I could better serve my internal clients like the investors, the traders, and the strategists who are now required to incorporate ESG factors into their investment decision-making.

My interest in ESG dates from my time at BlackRock, when, in 2020, sustainability became the firm’s number one priority. The feeling was that sustainability should be the new standard for investing and portfolio managers should be accountable for appropriately managing exposure to ESG risks and documenting how those considerations have affected investment decisions.

At Macquarie, the effective management of ESG risks and opportunities is also central to our decision-making and investment processes, especially with the influx of new sustainability-related regulation in the UK and beyond.

Joining the HSF Belfast office was instrumental in my career. It was the first and most important stepping stone to everything that came afterwards; without my time at HSF Belfast, I would never have the opportunities that have shaped my life – both professionally and personally – over the last decade. HSF quite literally opened doors for me and my experience there, the excellent training and exposure to interesting work, provided me with an opportunity to step into the world of finance – about which I had always been intellectually curious.

More than that, my time at HSF taught me how to run a project and how to build a good team. I also learned how to interact with corporate clients, how to present effectively and how to influence in the workplace – valuable skills which I still use daily in my working life.

Looking back, I also appreciate the value of being part of an innovative market-leading alternative legal services team at HSF Belfast. Those early days of the HSF Belfast office were very exciting and solutions-focused and I saw first-hand what it meant to push boundaries – using cutting-edge technologies on our legal work and being part of innovative resource models that were being presented to our clients for the first time.

embed image

I have kept a keen eye on the development of the HSF Belfast office and it has been great to see their continued evolution and growth, alongside the firm’s global ALT team. And given the acceleration in demand from clients for ever-more innovative and competitive legal services offerings, I have no doubt the team will continue to push forward.

Above all, I am extremely grateful to Lisa McLaughlin and Libby Jackson for hiring me back in 2012. I could never have imagined the twists and turns my career has taken. It has been an amazing journey so far.


Alumni Matters 2023

Start here

Introduction with Adrian Clough

Our latest issue brings international perspectives from Australia, the UK, Colombia, Japan and more

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

Following the sun

HSF’s Alternative Legal Services: Our story

In search of alternative energy sources

Four alumni and one current partner explore the challenges and opportunities of energy transition

Awaiting the revolution: How will AI transform legal services?

Scott Cochrane on how AI will transform legal services

Lawyer to founder

Two Herbert Smith Freehills alumni tell us what it takes to create your own company

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

From the National Portrait Gallery reopening to the launch of Life@HSF, the last year has been an eventful year for HSF

Alumni Matters 2023

Get your copy now

Stay in the know

We’ll send you the latest insights and briefings tailored to your needs