Clara Gonzalez-Martin, LLB 1990

On the thrill of the deal, mentors and sponsors—and the importance of staying true to yourself

By Lucianna Ciccocioppo / Photography by Sandy Nicholson

From the Fall/Winter 2018 issue of Nexus

LC: What do you love about corporate law?

CGM: It's putting pieces of a puzzle together. When I first started in securities law, I found the work very technical, but I also I enjoyed the large transactions. I enjoyed seeing them on the front page of the newspaper, and the travel. Sadly, I'm not in any way an entrepreneur, so I enjoyed the institutional aspect of corporate law.

LC: What are some of the highlights of your career?

CGM: I would say the interesting deals. One of the most interesting and challenging I worked on —and it was when I first started at Osler, before I moved to London—was the restructuring of Bramalea, which unfortunately subsequently went into liquidation. That gave me a first real taste of corporate law.

At the beginning of my career, I did many long nights at the printers, cancelled holidays, and cancelled plans, but at a young age it was really exciting to be part of that and to be working on such complicated deals. It involves lawyers across all practice areas, and a huge amount of teamwork, to get a large restructuring done. Watching the partners, I was amazed at the ease with which they were able to navigate all aspects of the deal. At the time, I was only involved in a tiny little piece. Looking back, I expect I spent most of my time proofreading documents at the printers, but it felt like I was part of something much larger.

Another highlight was the almost four years I spent at Osler’s London office. Most of the London work was more plain vanilla, but also more varied—the Canadian aspects of far larger deals. We advised on a lot of EMTN [European Medium Term Notes] programmes. It doesn’t sound exciting now, but those were the first large EMTNs.

In London, the highlight of my career was my work on two very difficult transactions in the Caribbean. They were very difficult deals to negotiate for many reasons. One of the main ones was that everything had to be done in person. It was impossible to negotiate over the phone or send faxes. As a result, the deals were very slow because every time we had to negotiate anything important, we had to find a place where we were all together in the same room. It involved a lot of traveling, but at the time, I considered myself very fortunate to be traveling all the time. Also, a lot of the negotiations on one of the deals were done in Rome, so that wasn't much of a hardship.

LC: You were at Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in London at a very exciting time. What were you working on?

CGM: I would say that the most interesting deals at Freshfields were the recapitalizations of the major UK banks in October 2008—RBS, Lloyds, and HBOS. The rights issues were done very quickly—a 72-hour weekend with separate teams of lawyers from many different firms negotiating the various deals. It was exciting and challenging because we really had to decide what was important in those very few hours. We had short documents rather than the usual long documents, only the important points were negotiated, and the deals were all announced on Monday.

Then, I guess another deal highlight was the 2006 IPO of the former UK Ministry of Defense research laboratory, which threw up very complicated legal and due diligence issues. One of the diligence highlights was a visit to a robotics facility where we had the opportunity to see the testing of robots that are used as first responders for dangerous military operations, such as bomb disposal and reconnaissance where it isn’t safe to send in people. It was incredibly interesting just to be able to see that.

LC: Why did you move in-house to Goldman Sachs?

CGM: After almost 20 years as a corporate lawyer, I was a bit bored and lost my drive. Although the clients were very diverse, and learning about different industries through the diligence process was interesting, I found myself negotiating the same legal points over and over again, thinking, ‘Oh no, we always start the negotiations in the same place and we end up meeting more or less in the same place in the middle. Why do we even bother? Why don't we start in the middle?’ I think once you start thinking that way, it's time to move on. I was also worn down by the hours. They're unpredictable, particularly as a securities lawyer.

I was fortunate that during my time at Freshfields, I had been on secondment at two large investment banks, one of which was Goldman. I knew people here already, and when the opportunity came to move here, even though it was in a different field, I more or less knew this was the environment that I was looking for in my next career.

LC: You're one of a small group of female managing directors at Goldman Sachs. Does this weigh on you at all and do you see yourself as a role model to try to get more representation?

CGM: As I have become more senior, I've had more time to reflect on that. I don't agree with any sort of inequality in the workplace or in more general terms. Unfortunately it does exist and the under-representation of women in influential positions continues to be an issue.

At the same time, I do feel strongly that I've always worked at organizations that have strived to get the best out of their people. Goldman is an organization that recognizes that diversity is important to its commercial success. Having a diverse group of people with different experiences, different ways of viewing the world, promotes what is important to us—teamwork and innovation.

I don't think we always get it right and there isn’t an easy fix, but I do think that large organizations, such as banks and law firms, are committed to trying to find a way forward that's better for everyone, including women. That is something I want to be part of.

LC: Do you have younger generations coming to you for mentorship advice?

CGM: Yes, I do. I feel a responsibility to younger professionals, not only mentoring, but also sponsorship. Sponsorship is what’s really important in helping them progress in their careers and navigate the difficult times.

I have a lot of experience and have made many mistakes along the way. Sharing those mistakes and pointing out the pitfalls and the potential consequences of making what are sometimes rash or emotional decisions is helpful, particularly those that women often make early in their careers. It’s equally important to emphasize that you have to be comfortable in your own skin through all of this. I strive to help women feel empowered to achieve whatever they aspire to, but without giving up who they are. That's the difficult part.

I’ve had many mentors, but only a few sponsors throughout my career, actually one at each of Osler, Freshfields and Goldman. I think that was the right number for me. I've only ever had sponsors at key times in my career. Interestingly, they've all been men, but I think that's just a function of who I was working with and was in the best position to guide me at a particular time.

LC: Who are your role models?

CGM: I have been lucky. When I started my career at Osler, there were a lot of very strong women, including Dale Ponder, who is currently co-chair of the firm, and Debbie Alexander, who went on to become General Counsel of Scotiabank. Many of them were partners and highly respected senior women.

In hindsight, I think Debbie was probably my role model. I knew her the best and was most influenced by her. I think she would be surprised that I consider her a role model, but I think she had an enormous influence when I was first starting out. Going back to what I now try to emphasize to others, the most important lesson I learned from her was that it's okay, and it's actually essential, to bring yourself to work every day, not the person you or others think you should be. If you're not happy with who you are, it's going to be harder, and it's definitely going to be less fun to get ahead and succeed, not only at the office but also at home.

LC: What do you love most about this current role?

CGM: It ticks all the boxes for me. It's interesting, varied and full of like-minded colleagues. I never know what the next day is going to bring.

My current role has made me a far more versatile lawyer and a far more open-minded person. I love the international nature of it, not only the work, but the people I work with day to day. We place a great emphasis on teamwork, with everyone expressing a view. I speak to and consult many people every day.

I still work within a legal department, but because it’s in-house it's more of an advisory group than a very technical legal group. We focus on legal, regulatory, and reputational risk in a transactional context, which has some technical legal aspects to it, but has more of a diligence focus in the context of the particular facts of a transaction.

We work across very different business lines—investment banking, principal transactions, and certain securities division areas. We have touchpoints across much of the firm's businesses. As well as that broad business mix, we also have a broad jurisdictional mix. In London, we primarily cover Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

We're also involved in cross-border deals with Canada, the US, Latin America. Speaking Spanish comes in handy. It's a very broad remit—many different types of transactions across many jurisdictions, which inevitably brings all sorts of different challenges every day.

It was a steep learning curve at the beginning, but a refreshing one. It was what I was looking for and has been invigorating.

LC: As a Canadian living abroad, how do you react to people's perceptions of Canada? Are you still getting reactions from people as a Canadian?

CGM: The accent gives it away. It doesn't give away Canada, but does give away that I’m not from here. I think it would be difficult to come up with one common perception of Canada. I'd say Canada is seen as a steady ship, reputable, understated and internationally respected. It is very easy to be a Canadian abroad.

LC: Do you miss Canada?

CGM: I've been gone for a long time. I don't know if I miss Canada anymore, but I do enjoy going back to visit. When I first left Canada, I did miss it a lot, particularly the network and support group I had built up in Toronto and at Osler. I do still miss certain people. I have very good friendships from my undergraduate years, law school and Osler who I don’t see very often. I don't miss the winter cold, but I do miss the sun.

LC: I have to ask, who's your favourite royal?

CGM: As boring as it sounds, I'd have to say the Queen. She’s definitely the most respected—perhaps similar to Canada, a strong, steady ship, understated, reputable and internationally respected. Life has dealt her many privileges, but it's also dealt her many challenges, and I think overall she's handled them well.