Jelena Madir’s career to date has been defined by two crises. The 2008 financial crash saw her out of a job and forced to look beyond private practice for gainful employment. Fast forward just over a decade, and the Covid-19 pandemic has spawned the work which she credits as the highlight of her career, and for which the Gavi legal team she leads won the Most Transformative In-House Team gong at the 2022 Legal Business Awards.
A globetrotting career, which has so far spanned two continents and five countries, began in the US. Despite having studied government and Asian studies with Chinese as an undergraduate, Madir insists: ‘I always knew I wanted to be a commercial or corporate lawyer’.
Her wish was granted when she landed an associate position at Cleary Gottlieb in Washington DC, where she worked in the finance team. After three years, a return to her home country of Croatia (and country number two) beckoned. Madir took up a role at Privredna banka Zagreb, the country’s second largest bank.
From there, Madir moved on to DLA Piper’s project finance group. After a year in the role, it seemed that she had struck gold with a move to Shearman & Sterling, which involved a third relocation, this time to Germany.
It was then that fate intervened: ‘I got a seemingly perfect job with Sherman & Sterling in Frankfurt in the equity capital markets team. But my timing could not have been worse because the market fell off a cliff. I started in May 2008 and found myself jobless six months later.’
Understandably, the midst of the financial crisis was not the ideal time to be looking for a job at a law firm. Madir had no choice but to cast her net wider, taking a job at multilateral The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) (the fourth country of her career).
Madir says of the decision: ‘At the time, no one was hiring in private practice and certainly not in structured finance or capital markets. To be perfectly honest, I would have preferred to stay in private practice at the time, but because no one was hiring except counter cyclical organisations like EBRD, I joined them. It definitely wasn’t something that was planned. Over the years, however, I discovered that I really enjoyed being so close to the business as an in-house lawyer.’
The move in-house proved something of a culture shock. She says: ‘You’re just handling a larger number of projects and you’re unable to go into so much depth as you would as a private practice lawyer. You’re also closer to the business and your thinking has to be more aligned with the business, rather than saying: “Here is our advice, do what you want with it.”’
The work at EBRD certainly seemed to agree with Madir, who spent over a decade rising through the ranks. This included a secondment to The Bank of England where she worked on payment regulation, and a move into fintech.
It was then that global health partnership Gavi came calling. At first, Madir admits that she had not heard of it before, but the nature of the company and the chance of career progression won her over. ‘It was a bit out of left field because it was a different sector, but it was a GC role and I wanted to get that breadth of experience. Moreover, what appealed to me was that Gavi is a very dynamic and innovative organisation,’ she recounts.
The role at Gavi brought her to Geneva (and country number five), and saw her responsible for a team of 15 people. It has also led to what Madir credits as the standout project of her career so far, and the work which earned her and her team the Most Transformative In-House Team award at the Legal Business Awards.
A coalition between Gavi, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, COVAX, sought to bring together governments, scientists, manufacturers and global health organisations to coordinate access to Covid-19 treatments and vaccines. To call it ambitious would be something of an understatement.
Madir says of the project: ‘In the summer of 2020, Gavi set up the COVAX facility, which is the largest programme for the production and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines around the world, and for which we were understandably under-skilled and understaffed in the legal department at the outset. Our CEO used to describe that project as “building a ship while sailing in a storm.” For legal, we had to recruit aggressively while at the same time pushing the project and making do with what we had.’
When it comes to the day-to-day, Gavi does not have a formal panel, but does run ‘competitive selections’ for different areas of work. Prospective firms are first judged on their technical submissions and their knowledge of the subject matter before attention is turned to fees. The current roster of preferred firms includes international powerhouses such as Linklaters, as well as boutiques like Agora.
She explains: ‘For more standardised work, I don’t think one needs to be paying top dollar because there are many firms that can do a very good job. That means that the large firms are all competing for that really high-end work.’
As well as legal knowledge, diversity and inclusion considerations are high on Gavi’s list of priorities. Madir expands: ‘We require all of our bidders to submit their policy on diversity and inclusion. Are we going to disqualify someone for having an all-male group of lawyers in the interview? Probably not, but we will definitely take note when comparing them to other firms with greater diversity.’
Despite her previous experience in private practice, Madir has no sympathy for firms which fail to go the extra mile to secure clients. She offers her two cents on what she wants from external counsel: ‘I appreciate that putting together a pitch involves a lot of non-billable hours with the risk of not getting the project in the end, but you will really stand out if you demonstrate in your pitch that you have thought carefully about a particular project and how you would approach it rather than just putting together a generic pack of prior experience and lawyers’ biographies which takes 10 minutes.’
Her comments allude to one of her bugbears about private practice: the billable hour. She commends the growing band of alternative law firms moving away from what she regards as an antiquated approach, but, when asked if she is seeing larger firms doing the same, Madir is downbeat. She laments: ‘Not as much as I would have hoped. I’m quite surprised by that. They’re still very much sticking to the billable hour. We always negotiate capped fees, and I am now seeing less of a push back against that than I did 10 years ago, but I’m not seeing creativity in putting together a different proposal.’
However, Madir does credit private practice with abandoning the old habit of palming off associates onto clients: ‘Firms have woken up to the fact that they can’t win a pitch with partners and then have the client working with junior associates. That doesn’t work. This is something that everyone is going to be probing at interview. We ask who is going to be overseeing the day-to-day and if they say it’s an associate, then it’s just not worth the money.’
Madir’s happiness in her current role is evident from her buoyant manner. Nevertheless, she still acknowledges a challenge that will be familiar to many in-house counsel: ‘There has often been a lack of appreciation of what the work entails and that’s probably normal, unless you are a seasoned business person who has years of experience on transactions. Otherwise, people just naturally think: “Here is what we’ve agreed, please draft the contract. And of course, you can do that in two hours, right?” Sometimes people also think that the lawyer can be left to draft a contact because a contract is all legal, but it’s not – it’s 99% commercial, and business people need to read and understand it. That’s the challenge, explaining what we do, why it takes so long and the cerebral gymnastics that go into it.
‘But it’s our duty as in-house lawyers (and essentially a cost centre in a business) to educate our internal clients about the complexity and importance of our work, and about our value add to the business.’
Madir’s passion for what she does is evident throughout the conversation (she even took time out of her holiday to speak to IHL), as is her extraordinary work ethic. Alongside her practice, she has somehow found the time to take on teaching responsibilities at University of London and University College London, sit on the sanctions board of Nordic Environmental Finance Corporation (NEFCO), complete a PhD and co-author two books on fintech and healthtech law.
When considering the next steps in her eventful career, Madir insists she is ‘not wedded to any type of work’, but acknowledges that moving back into a law firm is not always an easy transition. ‘It becomes harder to transition to private practice because you don’t necessarily have a book of business. But it depends. In the US there is a fluidity between public and private sectors and between in-house and private practice which I don’t see on the continent.’
For the moment, Madir has her hands full with all things Gavi, which finds itself in an interesting position as the pandemic recedes. She concludes: ‘What will the future look like? COVAX is winding down but morphing into pandemic preparedness. We now need to clearly dedicate some of the resources for pandemic preparedness and that may entail the creation of new departments or the launch of some new, innovative products like mechanisms for the support of local vaccine manufacturing. All of that then trickles down to the legal team.’
At a glance – Jelena Madir
2003-06 Associate, Cleary Gottlieb
2006-07 Legal counsel, Privredna banka Zagreb
2007-08 Associate, DLA Piper
2008 Associate, Shearman & Sterling
2009-11 Counsel, EBRD
2011-14 Principal counsel, EBRD
2014-16 Senior counsel, EBRD
2016-19 Chief counsel, EBRD
2019-present General counsel, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance
Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance – key facts
Size of team 15
Legal spend $2m
Preferred advisers Linklaters, Slaughter and May, Burges Salmon, Agora, K&L Gates, LALIVE, Lenz & Staehelin