After more than 20 years at Fenech & Fenech Advocates, Nicolai Vella Falzon has reached that point in his career that most lawyers aspire to when joining a law firm – the role of Managing Partner. Having taken the reins at a challenging time, Nicolai is confident there is a lot to look forward to at the leading firm, which also celebrated its 130th anniversary in 2021.
Starting as a trainee with Fenech & Fenech Advocates in 1998, Nicolai Vella Falzon’s remarkable journey with the law firm is a reflection of his approach to his profession: hard and honest work pays off. In January 2021, Nicolai was appointed Managing Partner – an accomplishment for any lawyer, and even more so when you’re the first unrelated member to be in the driver’s seat of a well-established, formerly family-run firm.
Nicolai’s career with Fenech & Fenech Advocates traces its history to an encounter with former Managing Partner, Ann Fenech, while he was presiding a seminar organised by the European Law Students Association of which he was a President during his student years. Some two years later, having returned to Malta after completing his Master’s Degree at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he was invited by Ann to take a traineeship with the firm, which he describes as being quite different back then, with a team of only 25 people. Today, the organisation – comprising Fenech & Fenech Advocates, Fenech & Fenech Marine Services and the Fenlex Group – has a staff complement of over 130 people.
Speaking of his decision to join, Nicolai says he immediately felt welcomed by the Partners and the team. “It felt like home, an honest environment run by honest people and I decided to trust my instinct,” he shares. His instinct served him well. In 2004, just six years after joining, Nicolai was invited to junior partnership. “This was one of the first highlights of my career. I was surprised and completely chuffed by it,” he smiles. Later, in 2008, he was invited to equity partnership and to take up a shareholding in Fenlex Group, a licensed corporate services provider owned by the law firm’s Partners. “I was one of two non-family members invited to sit around the table at the time. It was a huge moment for me – and also a milestone for the firm,” Nicolai explains.
Topping off these achievements is his appointment as Managing Partner in January 2021. “For a lawyer in a firm, this is the culmination of one’s career,” he asserts, adding that, despite having been on the executive management committee for the past four years, adjusting to the role of Managing Partner required a significant mental shift. “To think that I started here as a trainee and, today, am the person in charge takes some getting used to!”
People management is one of the major challenges of Nicolai’s new role – addressing the concerns and managing the expectations of such a large number of people is no mean feat. “As the organisation grows, so will the demands to manage people’s needs,” he says. “We want to ensure the team are happy and loyal to the firm, and that they work in an environment in which they can – and want to – grow and thrive. This is perhaps the greatest challenge, but we are guided by a sense of fairness and that has proved to be instrumental to the organisation’s success. Moreover, it is crucial to keep an open mind and to listen to different opinions before making decisions.”
2021 was a momentous year for the firm, which marked its 130th anniversary. “I don’t think many firms in Malta can boast such longevity,” says Nicolai, who explains that, when it was founded four generations ago, Fenech & Fenech Advocates was a small and modest practice, but it continued to grow steadily since then. “Over the past 30 years, as we tapped into new niches and markets which were predominantly international in nature, such as maritime law, corporate structuring, international tax, financial services, aviation, iGaming and others, the firm expanded rapidly. All the while, the firm remained true to its roots, as a leading firm in civil and commercial litigation.”
While much has changed since its establishment, Nicolai asserts that “the key to the firm’s success and growth boils down to the hard work and dedication of the Partners who preceded me and that of the Partners, Managers and staff in office today. While some Senior Partners are nearing retirement, they continue to foster the attitude, commitment and dedication they always had, and my goal is to continue to harbour these values at the firm.”
Alongside his management role, Nicolai still heads the Commercial and Corporate Law Department, while maintaining some activity within the Aviation Law Department which he also used to head before taking on the managerial role. “In spite of COVID-19 and the global economic downturn, we saw growth in both these departments in 2020 and 2021, which is tremendous,” he shares.
In the Commercial and Corporate Law Department, Nicolai explains that various opportunities emerged as a result of the upheaval caused by COVID-19. When large organisations began to struggle, they needed to enter into re-financing arrangements with their banks, which in turn created opportunities for legal work. Equally, companies in financial trouble being bought out created work in the mergers and acquisitions space, and that has a spillover effect into other practice areas.
“Despite the near-total collapse of the aviation industry during the pandemic, ironically, we’ve never had a more active year in this field,” explains Nicolai. “We have been actively promoting Malta as a first-rate jurisdiction for the aviation industry – particularly in terms of its legislation and safety standards – for many years and the Government has also invested considerable effort to make Malta an attractive jurisdiction for aviation and aircraft leasing in particular,” he asserts. “It takes time but, once momentum is gained, it tends to have a snowball effect and we’ve seen this take place over the past 24 months. In 2021, our Aviation Law Department had one of its best years yet, and I’m optimistic that 2022 will continue in the same vein.”
Looking back at the past year, Nicolai says that, while COVID-19 has caused its fair share of hardship, he considers the firm to be in a fortunate position for having maintained a steady level of work generation and, indeed, growth. “We reiterate how fortunate we are to our team regularly because I don’t take a single day for granted,” he says.
“I believe the pandemic has also brought about opportunities,” Nicolai acknowledges. “We were forced to integrate tools into our daily work life, such as remote meeting applications, online conferences, webinars and other means that have long been available to us but which we never bothered to use. During this time, and given that we could no longer make ourselves physically present in international fora, we also invested a lot of effort into our online presence, which dovetailed nicely with a rebranding exercise we had started shortly before COVID-19 struck. The firm is now more visible than it has ever been on social media and the pandemic gave us the time and space we needed to concentrate on the promotion of our work in a professional manner. I’m very happy with the outcome.”
Turning towards the next 12 months, the Managing Partner says that one cannot ignore “the cloud sitting over Malta with its greylisting by the Financial Action Task Force. We are often asked if it has impacted us, and the answer is that while it may have not done so yet in terms of loss of business, it has had a huge indirect impact, through the manner in which authorities and banks are now dealing with the application of obligations, rules and procedures relating to compliance,” he asserts.
“In principle, this is not a bad thing if Malta is to re-establish its reputation as a first-rate financial services centre,” says Nicolai, “however it needs to find a balance between proper controls and allowing people to operate in an environment that is efficient and sensitive to the needs of business. I don’t think we’ve found that balance yet, and finding it is going to be crucial for Malta’s standing in the coming years.”
The organisation will launch a new business line in the coming months and, while the Managing Partner cannot reveal much more at this stage, he is optimistic that the other established services at Fenech & Fenech and Fenlex will continue to perform well.
On a personal level, Nicolai has two key areas of focus for 2022 – to continue to improve the organisation’s online presence and the quality of the professional content that it shares, and to continue building upon the organisation’s internal structures. “The firm has grown rapidly in recent years and we’ve always adapted to change on the go. We are now in a place where we can consolidate our structures in a forward-thinking way that caters for succession with a diverse pool of partners and shareholders. This process has already started and will continue to involve a lot of conversations going forward,” says Nicolai. “By the time my tenure as Managing Partner is over, I would like to leave behind an organisation with a structure that, to the extent possible, is future-proof.”
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