Portrait of SANDS Partner Jon Skjorshammer photo

A little bit coach, a little bit guide

A good insolvency lawyer has a nose for business and understands many different industries and legal cultures. But this is not a field for office-bound lawyers.

“The best lawyers for this are also good teachers who can put the legalese aside and make well those who actually need to be good, to appear as goodbe made well,” says lawyer Jon Skjørshammer.

The clients of SANDS’ restructuring and insolvency unit are either probate and bankruptcy courts who appoint administrators, or companies in trouble. Irrespective, the work involves being able to be with and assist people who are experiencing a financial breakdown and demanding challenges. Entrepreneurs who have given everything for an idea but have run out of money. Managers of enterprises that have been brutally affected by market changes. Employees who have lost their jobs and are uncertain about their own financial future. Creditors who are facing substantial losses. Families that have operated for generations without renewing themselves.

“As a lawyer in this field, you are called into a difficult situation. You often encounter a very stressed group of people with different tasks and agendas, who you have to work with and through. Responsiveness is essential,” says partner Jon Skjørshammer, who leads the unit at SANDS.

Responsiveness is not on the syllabus at law school.

“It is not at all uncommon to feel that they want a ‘messiah’ who will confidently take the wheel and dictate the answers to all the questions. But it can easily go wrong if you as a lawyer dictate how things are to be done, even if some have a propensity for this. You have to go in with well-developed social antennae, get acquainted and develop trust, and through an interaction with the management take the measures necessary to handle the various situations,” says Skjørshammer.

“It is absolutely essential that we as lawyers both advise and coach in a good way while we ensure that the important decision makers regain energy and enthusiasm.

So long, Gordon Gekko. Jon Skjørshammer started with restructuring and insolvency at the same time as the serial bankrupts in Wall Street ruled popular culture in the mid 1980s. For 25 years, he developed the insolvency practice at the Selmer law firm before he left for SANDS in 2015. The field has been evolving intensely.

“For an insolvency lawyer, far more details and professional knowledge are required than when I began. There has been enormous development in all the industries we cover, commercially, in legal rules and in framework conditions,” says Skjørshammer.

Skjørshammer has been an advisor, officially appointed chair of debt settlement committees and administrator for many of the largest and most complex bankruptcies in Norway in recent years, such as the Terra estate. He is ranked very high in the lawyer rankings, among other things for his business strategy expertise. Colleagues ascribe to him “the same impact in the bingo hall as in the board room of listed companies”.

In order to develop one of Norway’s foremost practices in insolvency and restructuring, Skjørshammer was joined by his younger colleague Robert Jensen, with whom he had worked for 12 years.

Jensen thinks insolvency lawyers are perhaps the profession’s greatest generalists because the assignments come from all fields of business:

“In order to be a capable insolvency lawyer, you have to work closely with strong professional environments like those we have at SANDS. We are a core group who are strong on restructuring and insolvency, with ambassadors in the other departments,” says Jensen.

The group is a driving force for the open lines between the practice areas that are so definitive for SANDS’ work culture.

“The legal profession is characterised by closed offices where people work on their own little patch. What we are doing at SANDS is in the process of defining how a modern law firm will work,” says Jensen.

SANDS is the only law firm with a dedicated department of state authorised public accountants and analysts. This makes the path much shorter for delivering various financial analyses and structuring of financial information, and it is seen today as a crucial advantage in being able to deliver the best possible result.

The human side. The lawyers primarily work with firms in financial crisis. In collaboration with the auditors on the team, they also assist with various financial calculations, analyses and liquidity budgets.

“Our auditors will immediately be able to do this work together with us, and those we represent will rapidly have a basis for decision in place.” Often the problem is that the figures are inadequate because the company’s situation over time has drained the enterprise of the resources necessary to have correct figures as a foundation and management instrument,” explains Skjørshammer.

“What is most important when a firm has to scramble because it is about to go under is that good bases for decision are prepared and processes are introduced with clearly defined goals. At the same time, we must ensure that everyone ‘keeps their cool’ and does not make things more difficult than necessary.” For this reason, a fundamental understanding of business is important.

When the group recruits, it is therefore important to find lawyers who are also practical and business-oriented, not just “good at school”. The human dimension is important.

“In two hours’ time I might have to respond to an entrepreneur whose lifelong dream has been crushed. It is important for our lawyers to leave the theoretical world many jurists find themselves in,” says Robert Jensen.

“To put it very simply: we want to be smart advisers who are easy to relate to.”

Drop the legalese. The role of a lawyer encounters a set of expectations. Skjørshammer nevertheless believes that a good insolvency lawyer should not occupy more space than strictly necessary. Recently he arrived at a firm under pressure where two general meetings were imminent. They were dumbfounded when he declined to chair the meetings:

“I explained that if I were to chair the meeting, then with my legal way of speaking I would create a certain style for that meeting, with a related perception among those sitting there that is not optimal for the situation. We believe it’s better for everyone if we step to the side a little and make the client a winner while we advise in the background,” says Skjørshammer.

At the first general meeting, a professional participant thought that the management of the meeting was too amateurish. However, the final outcome was that the management succeeded in building trust that they could handle the situation. When Skjørshammer said after the second meeting that it turned out the right way, the critic totally agreed.

“We are more concerned about pulling together than riding in as the hero. As a lawyer in this field, you’re a little bit coach and a little bit guide. I’ve been in many meetings with lawyers who are high on themselves,” he says.

“We have to be lawyers as little as possible, and as much as possible humans who adapt ourselves to the reality we have entered.”