Tiago Dias José is a partner at MGRA & Associados in Lisbon, Portugal, where he focuses on public law. In this episode, Lindsay and Tiago delve into the ways in which the pandemic and the war in Ukraine continue to impact the legal profession and how lawyers can equally impact these global crises, and managing a law firm in modern times.
You can listen to the podcast here, or we’ve provided a transcript of the highlights below.
Lindsay: Hello and welcome to the Law Firm Intelligence Podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network. And our guest this week is Tiago Dias Jose from MGRA in Portugal. Tiago, we are really excited to have you with us this week. Thank you so much for joining us.
Tiago: Thank you, Lindsay. And thank you for inviting our firm and me, representing it, to this podcast and to this presentation of how the ILN enters our lives as lawyers, and of our lives, as it is. Thanks.
Lindsay: You’re welcome. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and the firm?
Tiago: Well, MGRA is a Portuguese law firm. We have our main office in Lisbon, then we have a few branch offices around the country. We have a few more and now we are more focused on Algarve, and we do have a cluster in the Azores. And we do have a good connection to the Portuguese-speaking world, say in either Brazil and Angola, Mozambique, Timor.
In some of these countries, we have had offices and now we don’t anymore. But we kept very strong partnerships in the markets where we are valuable players, and let’s say where we have the knowledge and we already have the clients to keep working. MGRA is a medium size for the Portuguese market. Medium size firm. We are around 40 lawyers and juniors and trainees, and so on, then we have the staff.
We have been challenged progressively and responding to that, to keep our clients with us, say, to communicate directly with our clients and to act within these geographies. Portugal is a small country and geographically, we have most of our clients are foreigners, especially companies. They act all over and we do have to follow the quickness of response and approach that they need.
And so within this challenge, we have been applying a lot of our effort in communication and in IT. So this is a strong market where we support our clients, but it’s also a strong focus of ours to keep using the latest technologies and to be able to cope with the development of technology, to keep replying and to keep giving the level of service that we are requested from our clients.
I, myself, I work in public law which goes from concessions… say mining or landscaping oil and gas, energy markets, to small licenses for family construction, for a business, for industry, to plotting and urban planning. In MGRA, we divide ourselves between areas of expertise and we have teams that then we blend.
Because of course, my team needs to have the support of the tax team, and so I take people from the tax team to mine, from the litigation when it’s needed or from the corporate law, which happens a lot. So we generally present ourselves saying we have teams separately, but the truth is we do assemble the teams for each client or issue questions that we are taking care of at any time.
Lindsay: That’s great. And I’m sure that works very effectively for your clients.
Tiago: Yes, it works well. It brings to the client, the certainty that his questions and any of his issues are being overseen from a global perspective. And not only, say I have a problem with tax, so I will fill this form and it’s done, or I have a problem with some licensing and I’ll just talk to the town hall and it’s done. It’s not like that.
We approach it with a broader view and try to put together a solution that is for all problems or to all questions. Even though sometimes the clients don’t understand that at the beginning, that they have such questions, it happens a lot.
Lindsay: Of course. I think that’s true for a lot of clients. So you mentioned dealing with challenges these days. So what would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment and how are you working to overcome that?
Tiago: In two separate topics. After a pandemic, the biggest challenge is of course a war going on, which is very serious. In the same way that sometimes the clients don’t understand the problems that they have when they come to us, I think we still do not understand the length of the problem that’s here already. This will take years to solve, it will take years. It’s unimaginable.
What are we doing now to cope with it? Very little. What we can do is we are trying to understand what’s going on and what would be an outcome and the possible ways to deal with it. So I think that is the biggest challenge for the next long term, very long term.
And I think COVID brought us a perspective of life and of how things evolve that was not immediate to all of us. To me, it wasn’t. The first time I heard about COVID, I was in New York, at the beginning of ’21… No, the beginning of 2020. I was there with my wife, we came back then. And it was just, there is a flu somewhere in the east where it was summer, and we were in the peak of the winter. And in two months or in 30 days, it was all over the news. And in 60 days, we were in lockdown.
And my idea, and I think in the majority of the people’s minds, we thought it will be over by summer, but then it wasn’t. And then it was two and a half years, and still, it’s not gone. Let’s say we have a bigger problem, yes. But it’s not gone. So I think this changed a lot the perspective of how we see things, all the major problems. Because let’s say in the last 20 years, our perspective changed a lot because things went faster and faster and faster.
The problems urged faster with the solutions as well. And this brought the trend a bit back and say the real problems don’t have a solution that is so fast. And it makes us wonder of course, but I think that’s the law. Especially law has 4,000 years. We know things take time to solve. And we know that when we are used to working with the law, we know that we can be fast and responsive, and we can act in a very short period of time. But generally, things take their time to get solved.
So I think we have to be patient. We have to understand this deeper and not try to jump into, “Let’s get a solution now” because it’s going to be very hard, I’m pretty sure. And it will affect us a lot. On the other hand, in my area and especially say on public law and relationship with the state, of course, every downsize or every big fall has some opportunities in it. And we have seen this happening a lot.
We have worked in Mozambique and Angola for very long periods, and we know that when things go deep down, there are some good opportunities and people need help. So we’ll be here to see what goes on, of course. I started working in ’97. And since then, I know that the biggest challenge I have while working, it’s people of course.
And it’s either our partners, our colleagues that work with us, or our clients. And I have a degree or I have a step on this, which is I have to do a link between the public, the state, and my clients, and it’s very hard. To make this approach between individuals and state is very hard, generally. But per se, it takes some time to do, to tune the two ends of this and say, “Let’s settle something together.”
Personally, that’s been a challenge since ever. And it’s something I’ve been working to cope with from the beginning. But it takes patience and it takes clarity and the truthness, I would say. I don’t know if there is a word in English. You have to be clear and you have to put things very, very straightforward before the eyes of the client so that everyone knows where things are standing at each point.
Lindsay: And I can imagine that working in public law does make you especially patient. Because I would think above even many other types of law, that things move especially slowly.
Tiago: Yes. Some, not always. When they move fast, they move really fast because it takes a lot of time to make decisions. But once the decisions are made, the procedures tend to be fast, and tend to accelerate. And one must be aware of that and must be aware of the clients and so on, that, “We have been waiting for six months. But then in six weeks, everything will have to be done.” That’s it.
At certain points, especially with public administration, the decisions are usually, or lots of times, made by pressure, and pressure comes from the need, and they decide. We talk for six months and we say, “This is going to be needed. Let’s do the procedure. Let’s find the proper way to get it on behalf of the administration.”
And we go back and forth, forward and backward, and at the same time say, “We need it in a week.” Say, “You have no time to do the procurements. You have no time to do the contracts.” “Oh, no. Find a way. Please do it.” And then you have to do it.
Lindsay: Right. Do you think there are lessons that you’ve learned from the pandemic that are now useful to you in dealing with clients and the government because of the war? And are things different or is that necessarily even relevant?
Tiago: It’s not, but I think both things are related like on a cause-effective course. But as I was saying as we were talking right now, I think COVID, the pandemic brought a different perspective on how we see life going on than what we have in the previous, I would say 20 years. And in a certain way yes, it prepared us to be ready to brace ourselves in the plan, say, “Something is not correct, is not going okay. So hold on.”
And it’s true. It gives us the resilience to go through the problems. And I imagine it also brings people to think a bit by themselves, which is quite important. And not only to take for granted what they see on social networks or something like this.
If we have a bit more attention and we take a bit of our time to go deeper into some news or just to think about things and to learn about just to search, where do things come from? How did this Soviet empire do up? How did the regions happen or become independent? Who is in charge of what it is in this all thing?
I think COVID, putting us all at home first. Stopping a bit. Stopping, just having time. Or, I didn’t find to have much time during COVID, I must say. We’ll get there. But I think that to the majority of people, it did two things. It gave them a bit more time, and it gave them the need to see and understand the bit of the news. And then as they have time to think a bit, and yes, it prepared people now to… I don’t say to understand because it’s very hard to understand this current situation.
But to be able to at least see what goes on and do their own perspective of what’s to come. And in that way, yes. I think COVID prepared people. Then the state, yes. Because of the way it brought the necessity to act fast and to be ready to help people. Yes, I think it also prepared the state.
Actually, I think the EU did get a good response either to COVID or socially. At least, socially. In politics, let them do that. But socially I think the EU gave a good response to the situation in Ukraine.
Lindsay: So you mentioned not getting more time with COVID. I’m guessing working from home did not help you.
Tiago: We had a lot of work. No. The thing is I work with the state and we have one side, and another side. We have a strong labor law department. So these were highly pushed because all the public procurement had to be turbocharged to buy masks, vaccines, alcohol disinfectant, the world, ambulances to protect more people…
On the other side, I work a lot with public transport on procurement technology, and that crashed completely. But as it crashed, we still had to cope with the consequences of… It didn’t crash. But of course, in 2020, the medium annual occupancy of public transport here was 12%.
Tiago: Which is way, way, way low. But it’s understandable. People had to stay at home, so it’s understandable. But of course, we had also to cope with the consequences of that. People in layoffs, all the labor issues that it brought along. But also, the maintenance of… things had to be maintained. The infrastructure, the structure. Everything had to keep running. So it would be possible to turn the key in the way that someone decided, and it will run. So it was very hard because it took a lot of time.
Lindsay: And what percentage is it at now?
Tiago: The usage of public transport? It’s getting to 80%.
What we are missing a bit is tourism because summer is starting now. So at the end of the year, it will be in good operation.
Lindsay: Back to normal hopefully. So I mean, you’ve told us a lot about work over the last few years. What would be the biggest surprise you’ve had over the last few months?
Tiago: It’s a question of perspective, of course. I would say it was very good and not a special surprise, which was very good to see the tourism industry getting back on its feet. We work with some airline companies, we work a lot with hotel companies on licensing, but also on a corporate business. And it was very satisfactory to see that from the beginning of the year, the business was taking off again and people were recovering.
Sorry… Huge surprises. There is nothing to sign to signal a huge surprise. This was a very positive thing that happened or that we saw started happening. But then the rest was already mostly foreseeable.
Lindsay: Which is probably a good thing. I mean, who wants any big-
Tiago: After so many surprises? Yes.
Lindsay: No kidding.
Let’s turn a little bit to your career. What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve learned over your career?
Tiago: Patience. Patience. And it’s two things that build up I think with me, and it builds up with a lot of professionals that work with people. Which is, that you have to be highly motivated and be very patient.
I have a trick. Here at the house, people know that I can do this. Which is, that I have a switch. I can go in the car. I can drive for a week with the kids yelling in the car, and I switch it off and I don’t hear them. And I can do the same lots of times with clients and colleagues.
Lindsay: I think my dad has that same switch. Sometimes I have to say his name a couple of times before I get his attention.
Tiago: It’s something I developed. For me, it was very hard to keep attention and to be focused when I was studying and so on. And I started developing this when I need to do something or I don’t want to be bothered or I need to be extremely patient, I just put it off.
Lindsay: Tune everything out. It’s definitely useful to have.
Tiago: Especially from an office like MGRA, we also learned that it is very important to keep people motivated. Our team is very valuable. We need to find the right people to work with us. But when you do, you have to keep them motivated, you have to give them new challenges. You have to find the right work for them or give them the opportunity to go and find it if they are able to or if they are motivated to.
And so managing people and keeping the right people with us, needs to be learned. Especially for me, I didn’t come with that preloaded capacity. I had to learn how to do it. With lawyers, it’s quite hard because lawyers tend to be very individual. And even though we work in MGRA with a few friends from the start, it’s hard to keep people always motivated.
And it’s hard for us when we jump into saying something or we are not on our best day and so on, to do it and say, “Oh. I shouldn’t have. This was maybe not the correct way to deal with it.” But then you have to step back. Then you have to say, “Let’s restart this. Sorry, let’s do it again.” I would say with lawyers, with each one with his ego, it’s sometimes not easy to deal with. Or to see people doing this, getting back on their feet and saying, “Let’s restart.”
Lindsay: That takes a lot of good self-awareness, too. I don’t think that’s a quality normally that lawyers have. So I think that’s probably unique about you and your colleagues.
Tiago: We try to do it. And of course, not everyone does it and not everyone does it every day because we don’t wake up feeling to do that every day. But it’s very important that we do it, for sure.
Lindsay: So what would you say is something that people would misunderstand about your practice? I think not a lot of people are in public sector work, and not a lot of lawyers are in public sector work, so what’s something that people would misunderstand?
Tiago: I would say mainly the length, the broadness of the issues involved. People, companies… Because to people, this is just a permit to buy a house or something. It’s not that hard to understand. But to companies… In Portugal, we have quite a heavy burden of red tape and a need to interact with the state that is quite heavy.
So what we see, what I see is that either I work with the companies that are already familiar, say to do a public meeting or to interact with the state by concessions or so on, then it’s easy. Because either we are with the company or with the state, but we know that on the other side, there’s someone that is already on the same page and on the same level. It’s easy to start.
But on companies like hotel groups or aviation, even on energy, say oil, gas, now wind and solar, it is very hard for people that come from the business sector and that are used to do business very fast, to work with people that can take their decisions very fast and do have the means to make the decisions, to work rapidly. Especially, we say this in the energy sector.
Then it’s very hard to make these decision-makers understand why is it so hard to come to the state to present a plan to say, “I want to do this. The overcome will be this. It will be good for me. It will be good for you. So do you agree with this or not?”
This can take months, and it’s very hard to explain to these people and understand you. We work with huge clients from huge oil companies, or for companies that now do solar in the early production of energy. And they run businesses that they have twice the gross product of Portugal, and they can do whatever they want with the money from their company.
They’re entitled to, “I want to do this here.” And if there was no state, they could do it. And then you say, “No. You cannot do that. You have to talk to these guys.” And, “Okay, let’s talk to the guys.” “Oh, no. They’re not available to talk to you.”
Lindsay: All right. So before we wrap up, can you tell me what being part of the ILN mean to you?
Tiago: Yes. For MGRA, it represents in the first instance, the ability to know the people to whom we recommend our clients, which is for us very important. And do the referral to someone that you met and that you know you can trust, even if it’s not that person that is going to do the job. If I say to an ILN colleague, “I have this issue” or, “My client has this issue. Can I send it to you?” And says, “Yes. Even if I don’t do it, I’ll find someone who will.” Then for me, I can be sure that it will be done.
It’s the difference between doing a good service to the client, say a referral. Or on the other hand, if this link is not there, my answer to the client would be, “I don’t know anyone. You have to search for yourself.” That’s it. Because the risk of referring someone that we don’t know, it’s quite high, and because we take responsibility for our referrals.
Apart from that, it’s a pleasure. It’s the pleasure of the meetings and knowing the people. And of course, having had the ILN meeting here in Portugal, we also, as a host, understood how important it is to make people feel comfortable and to have good hospitality for them to feel easier, and to mingle between themselves.
So for us, it’s a pleasure and a rewarding pleasure because we have this added value of being sure of the referrals and the people we meet. Of course, we have had a few referrals and a few good clients, no lot, and we made a few good friends as well.
Lindsay: Good, that’s what I like to hear. And finally, the one question I always ask everyone is, what is one thing you’re enjoying right now?
Tiago: I enjoy several things. What I’m enjoying most now is that we are starting the summer. So with back to sailing and back to the water. I’d love that. In terms of music and literature, I’ve been a bit on the downsize of new music. I’ve been just listening to mostly old tunes. So nothing to put the point at.
I’ve been reading a few Portuguese authors that I didn’t know. In Portuguese, but are from Angola and from Mozambique, which I recommend. I don’t know if the translations would be any good. But in Portuguese, they are very interesting because the way that the non-Portuguese speakers, the way they evolve their communication in Portuguese is very interesting. With new words, with new phrasing, with new ways of saying the same thing, bringing some new music to it. It’s interesting.
Lindsay: Very cool. All right. Well, thank you so much for doing this. I really appreciate it.
Tiago: It’s a pleasure.
Lindsay: And thank you so much to all of our listeners for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review and subscribe over on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. And thank you so much.