Elena Ursache is solicitor at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) having originally joined the Competition Commission in 2011 as a legal intern before she was appointed to the post of legal advisor in June 2014. She has dual qualification – UK Solicitor and Romanian avocat (lawyer) and has extensive experience in EU / competition law, corporate, commercial and cross-border M&A (merger and acquisition) transactions. Elena’s previous experience includes working as an intern for the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, before which she worked for two law firms in Bucharest.
“…I was very active on LinkedIn and people were very responsive. My experience is that people would like to help if you offer them the opportunity to do so…”
Starting my career in Bucharest
I qualified as a lawyer in Bucharest and I started my career doing pro bono criminal case work. Advising individuals involved in criminal trials brought me closer to human nature as my client was a human being and not a corporation.
Dealing with judges, the prosecutor and the police was quite intense, very interesting but something was lacking – it did not have an international angle to it. Therefore, when I learned that one of the few international law firms in Bucharest at that time was expanding its team, my interest in criminal law was soon overtaken by the ‘glamour’ of the international corporate environment.
I spent over four years in private practice, two years with a leading Austrian law firm and over two years with Deloitte, advising international clients on some of the major corporate and finance transactions that dominated the Romanian market during 2004-2008.
That was a time easily described as ‘work hard, play hard’, during which the long nights and weekends spent in the office were followed by team building in Vienna or Sharm El Sheikh. I had exceptional managers that were both very good lawyers and mentors from whom I learned that success comes with hard work, rigour and discipline, determination and … a bit of luck. My efforts were soon rewarded and I was promoted to a senior level.
Doing something for myself
However, in addition to being a successful lawyer, I’ve always wanted to study in England – I blame it on the very good reputation that the English law schools have amongst the European lawyers. As my career was progressing, I found it difficult to take a break and go back to school. Therefore when I thought that I had significant experience that would allow me to resume my career from where I left it, I applied to several law schools.
I chose Durham not only for its very good reputation but also for the very beautiful surroundings – as Bill Bryson said, “If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. It’s wonderful.”
At Durham I had to choose four modules and that was a difficult choice to make; needless to say choice was never an option in the Romanian schools. As I was going to use my Masters of Law Degree to boost my career, I stuck to what I knew best – corporate governance, international trade and banking law. Still, one more module to choose – could the fourth one be the lucky number? As I had brief encounters with competition law before, I decided upon it.
My competition law professor was very passionate about the subject and I found him very inspirational. After I earned my Masters’ Degree with distinction, I found myself in the middle of a crossroad in my career. I made my decision to pursue competition law.
At Durham I had the opportunity to meet all the Magic Circle law firms. They all came to Durham to present themselves. The lawyers and the HR people said, “It’s all very good. You have brilliant experience in corporate commercial, but if you want to do competition law you need to have some experience in this area.”
“Do you have experience?” Deciding to find an internship
I spoke with as many people in the legal industry as I could and I even asked my managers at Deloitte to help me to meet contacts in London. I was very active on LinkedIn and people were very responsive. My experience is that people would like to help if you offer them the opportunity to do so.
I had lot of positive responses from various people, but many of them were asking me, “Do you have experience?” So I found a couple of organisations where I could do voluntary work. One of them was the British Institute of International and Comparative Law, well-known amongst the Durham alumni; many of my Durham colleagues had done an internship there and they recommended it, so I did a short internship there too.
I was aiming for an internship with the Competition Commission in London. I checked the website and saw they were recruiting researchers with an economic background for their economic team. I thought that it couldn’t be any harm if I wrote to the HR department, introduced myself and asked if they were interested in someone with a legal background. Disappointingly, they were not just then. However, the HR team got back to me a couple of weeks later saying they had a few openings, so I joined the Competition Commission as a summer intern.
Deciding to get qualified as a solicitor in England
In addition to being questioned about my experience in competition law, the second question was, “Are you qualified here?” I told them I was qualified in Romania and how many years’ experience I had. The lawyer inside me came out and said “Obviously I’m a European qualified lawyer so from a legal point of view I can practise here.” People listened but advised me, “London is a very competitive market, you might want to qualify here if you want to get ahead.” That was another piece of advice that I took on board and acted upon. It makes a difference to be qualified in the place where you are practising.
Thus, I took the Qualified Lawyer’s Transfer Test so that at the end of the internship I was also a qualified solicitor and I started applying for qualified lawyer roles.
Meeting people who were positive about my aspirations
Along the way, I was lucky to meet people who were very positive about my aspirations. When I told them what I wanted to do they said, “Well, have you thought about how to do this?” and they started sharing their experience. They also put me in touch with other people. Networking and communication were key to both my personal and professional development. I listened and learned a lot from other people’s experience, however in the end I had to choose what worked for me and to find my own way.
The work of the Competition and Markets Authority
The CMA is the UK’s primary competition and consumer authority. It is an independent non-ministerial Government department with responsibility for carrying out investigations into mergers, markets and the regulated industries and enforcing competition and consumer law.
In my role as a legal advisor, I advise on a variety of legal issues arising in relation to the particular investigation I would be working on. I work in multidisciplinary teams along with economist colleagues and business advisors and the work varies from merger inquiries to market investigations and investigations under the Competition Act 1998.
Approaching new horizons
Internships are a great opportunity to meet people active in the field of interest where you would like to work. You can get a good insight into how your usual Tuesday would look like if you were to work there. You can also gain a bit of practical experience and it’s also very helpful for networking. For example the internship that I did with the Competition Commission helped me to meet the team and to see the work that they were doing here. It gave me the opportunity to see if I would like to work in this environment or whether I would like to go back into private practice.
I don’t think I have ever made a conscious decision about leaving Romania and I don’t think I have completely left it. I like going back to Bucharest every so often and I keep in touch with everyone back there, including former colleagues. Bucharest is an amazing place to be, a culturally rich European capital, with an impressive history behind it – I strongly recommend visiting it and late May is the best if you ask me. It is also true that I am living a new chapter of my life now, where the action is based in London.
The call of living in London appealed to me as it resonated with my strong desire for diversity and an international and multicultural environment.
Advice for anyone starting out in their law career
Take advantage of the networking opportunities. There are several online networks, but I prefer to connect with professionals and join the relevant groups on LinkedIn.
As a result of a recent networking event I attended – a breakfast event to inspire women working in competition policy, I was introduced to a peer network; we meet once a month and we debate various topics and share experiences.
It is important to have a good work life balance, but very often this is challenging to achieve. However, there are organisations that recognise this and the CMA is one of those. The CMA has a lot of emphasis on flexible working in order to allow everyone, irrespective of their gender or home commitments, a work life balance.
The best advice I’ve been given? Don’t be afraid to approach people. Try to meet as many people as you can who are active in the environment where you want to work, and good things will come. What is the worst that can happen? Sheryl Sandberg put in a slightly different way – “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’’
I think there is no pattern for life or career success and with enthusiasm, hard work, faith and with one’s own ‘manner’ of doing things – the one that suits oneself the best – all the difficulties can be overcome.
Diversity is our strength
The fact that I was brought up in a different culture together with the fact that I studied at an international school where I had international colleagues made me very aware of cultural differences and the role they play when bringing people together. The motto of the Ustinov College of which I was part at Durham was “Diversitate Valemus”, which means “Diversity is our Strength”.