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Eleni Zodiates

Partner, Brown Rudnick

Quotation Marks
Like many areas of law, there are plenty of women at the junior and mid-level, but as you go up the ranks into partnership, Real Estate Finance is quite a male-dominated practice area

SJ Interview: Eleni Zodiates

SJ Interview
SJ Interview: Eleni Zodiates


For the June 2024 volume, Eleni Zodiates talks to the Solicitors Journal

Eleni Zodiates is a distinguished partner at Brown Rudnick in the Special Situations, Credit & Trading Practice Group. Known for her wide-ranging expertise in corporate finance, special situations, real estate finance, and asset-backed financings, Eleni has made a significant impact in the legal world. Her remarkable achievements include being named a finalist for the “Real Estate Finance Rising Star of the Year” by the Real Estate Capital Europe Awards 2023 and honored as a “Dealmaker of the Year” in The Global Legal Post’s Women & Diversity in Law Awards 2024.

In this interview, Eleni shares her journey and experiences as a lawyer. She discusses her inspiration to follow in her mother’s footsteps into law, the surprises she encountered in the profession, and the challenges she faced entering the field during the recession post-2008 financial crisis. Eleni provides insight into her role in a male-dominated area of law, the skills required to be effective in her specialization, and her fascination with sustainability-linked and green loans.

Additionally, Eleni talks about her rapid ascent to partnership at the age of 31, the lack of diversity in senior legal roles, and how the industry can better address barriers to entry and embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. She also shares her experiences handling multi-jurisdictional cases and reflects on her proudest achievements and aspirations for her legacy in the legal profession.

What inspired you to become a lawyer?

Unsurprising origin story here! My mum was a solicitor, she was a construction lawyer in Birmingham (also made up to partner in her thirties). I’m very similar to my mum, we are both opinionated, perfectionists and big readers, so it was obvious that I should follow in her footsteps.

Has anything about the profession surprised you? Is a career as a lawyer what you thought it would be?

I think the biggest surprise is just how much transactional solicitors make deals actually happen. It is really the lawyers that drive a deal to a closing, that run through the signings and spearhead the final money movements and negotiations. Clients trust me and my team enough to go to bed and wake up in the morning knowing that we will have closed their deal for them overnight. When I was a law student, I would never have guessed that lawyers would have that level of responsibility! It’s nerve-wracking, but it’s also fantastic.

Have you faced any barriers to entry in the profession?

I graduated in the recession following the 2008 financial crisis – law firms had really decreased trainee intake numbers and it took about three years of applications to secure a training contract. There is a real art to successful training contract applications and interviews, and it took me a while to develop it!

What is your experience of being a woman in a male dominated area of law (real estate finance)?

Like many areas of law, there are plenty of women at the junior and mid-level, but as you go up the ranks into partnership, Real Estate Finance is quite a male-dominated practice area. For example, I was the only female Finance partner on the last large deal I completed – the circa $800m Queensgate refinancing of the Generator group. I’ve also been on a deal where there were more men named “James” than women! Having said that, change is gradually on the way. In the Brown Rudnick Special Situations, Credit & Trading Practice Group in London, we are 50/50 men and women at the partner level.

What do you think it takes to be an effective lawyer in your area of specialism?

I typically act borrower side for funds, corporate borrowers, asset managers, developers and real estate investors. My clients often have no or very lean in-house counsel – they are busy people juggling multiple deals at a time. My clients really rely on me to take on all of the project management responsibility and proactively drive the deal forward. I’m always thinking “how can I make my client’s life easier? How can I get their thoughts on this Facility Agreement without making them read all 450 pages of it?”. I think these “deal-driver” skills are really critical when acting for borrowers.

What areas of law fascinate you the most and why?

I’m fascinated by the rise of sustainability-linked loans and green loans. I’m interested to see if and when they will permeate beyond the market of big banks and big corporates and into the direct lending and more opportunistic space.

It is really quite amazing to see financial institutions try to use their influence and power as lenders to nudge companies to fulfill ESG KPIs. It shows banks are thinking in the long-term about our planet – what a change from the practices that led to the Lehman Brothers collapse!

Making partner at the age of 31 is a huge achievement. How did you manage to make that happen?

When I was about 6 PQE, I decided I wanted to push for partnership and that I needed to move to a firm where there was a clear pathway for that. When I interviewed with Brown Rudnick in 2021, I was very clear that I wanted partnership, which was ballsy for a 29-year-old on a Zoom interview in the pandemic!

Eighteen months on, I delivered and so did the firm. As soon as I arrived, I acted like a junior partner and I was then treated as such. I worked very hard, originated work and won over the institutional clients of the firm. Brown Rudnick is very straight talking and asks where do you want to go and what do you need to get there. I’ve been encouraged, mentored and believed in since day one. At many law firms, the elevation process is smoke and mirrors with decisions being made a million miles away from you by a management team you’ve never met, but this is not the case at Brown Rudnick.

Why are we not seeing more diversity in the senior ranks of private practice law firms?

The most valuable people in any law firm are not the cleverest lawyers, or the most brilliant negotiators, or even the best managers; it’s the ones who have client relationships. And looking across the market, men are generally more successful at developing client relationships than women. So why aren't women bringing in clients the same way men are?

There are many factors at play here – the time a woman can dedicate to business development if she has a family, the traditional networking forums of football matches and boozy nights, the vestige of the “old boys clubs”, women’s confidence issues with making “the ask” and imposter syndrome, etc.

And the clients – why aren’t clients instructing women at the same rate as men? Are the decision-makers at the clients also generally men choosing to instruct other men? In my view this is the last area of real imbalance in law firms – the predominance of male client relationship partners and male rainmakers.

The gamechanger for me will be when clients apply pressure to their external legal counsel to be more diverse. Law firms are always most responsive to client needs. Large organisations are becoming more conscious of instructing diverse legal counsel and this will eventually trickle down.

How can the law address barriers to entry and fully embrace diversity, equity and inclusion?

Addressing barriers includes both macro level action such as legislative changes, as well as changes at the industry, firm, and individual level.

Education and training is a big piece, which requires continuing to integrate cultural competency and diversity training into legal education to ensure that all of us in the industry understand and appreciate diverse perspectives. Implicit bias training should continue to be a focus to help ensure that we are looking at decision-making with an inclusive lens.

Mentoring initiatives, like the one we have here at Brown Rudnick, connect associates with partners or senior lawyers who can provide support to them as they develop their career. Sponsorship goes further than mentoring as we can proactively identify and support underrepresented talent, by matching solicitors with partners who can help open doors for them, raise their profile, and introduce them to their networks.

Recruiting continues to be a critical piece. We recruit from a broad range of schools/universities and actively look for opportunities to work with on-campus affinity groups. Brown Rudnick’s summer associate pipeline program in the US has been particularly successful in attracting a diverse group. We also offer an internship specifically for a first-generation university student.

Finally, we need to keep tracking data and holding ourselves accountable.

You have been involved in a lot of cases involving multiple jurisdictions, how do you navigate such cases and what challenges do you face in this regard?

It is absolutely critical to surround yourself with the best local counsel in any jurisdiction. That’s not always easy to do when you are unfamiliar with a market but good local counsel make all the difference. I also believe in taking the time to really familiarise yourself with the geography, the legal framework, and even the history and politics of any country you are doing a deal in.

At one point on a transaction I closed recently, it became very important to know that the commercial court of Denmark is not in Copenhagen; it’s in Arhus, several hours drive from Copenhagen. The transportation and submission of a document between these two Danish cities could genuinely delay a multi-million euro deal. Good local counsel will guide you, but you have to pick up the detail as well. As principal or lead counsel, it’s just not good enough to say “well, that’s not English law/in the UK so I don’t know”.

I’ve done deals in Sub-Saharan Africa where there can be no precedent for certain documents – for example a receivables pledge in Mali. Thinking creatively, you start with a French law receivables pledge as a precedent and work up from that, referring to the relevant OHADA law. You can only think of a solution like that if you have researched the jurisdiction and clocked the French law influence from Mali’s time as a French colony.

What achievements are you most proud of so far in your career?

At my previous firm, I worked with a couple of friends to create a mentoring scheme from scratch. We partnered with a local East London secondary school with a high proportion of black and ethnic minority students and set up workshops and mentoring teams. It was incredibly rewarding work and I’m super happy to see it has been continued every year and the mentees are doing well. At Brown Rudnick, I have continued mentoring diverse students, joining forces with the Stephen James Partnership Black Lawyers Matters mentoring programme.

And on a more self-centered note, I’m very proud of being promoted to partner at age 31. I know it is just a title and there has been very little change in my day-to-day job, but it was really special.

What would you like to be remembered for?

This is a difficult one! The highest paid female rainmaker in London?!

No, I would like to be remembered by my colleagues as a team-player, a fun and friendly colleague, and a mentor and sponsor to others. And, by my clients as a great deal-maker and go-to finance partner.