This week, I was joined by Geraldine Spiteri, a partner from Acumum Legal & Advisory, who specializes in maritime and aviation law, as well as John Navarro, the firm’s associate, who is a corporate lawyer. They discuss trends of compliance and sustainability, why both maritime and aviation are such hot fields at the moment, and some other emerging practices in Malta.
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 ILN-telligence podcast. I’m your host, Lindsay Griffiths, Executive Director of the International Lawyers Network.
We have two guests this week. With us are Geraldine Spiteri and John Navarro with Acumum Legal and Advisory in Malta. We’re really excited to have them with us. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your practice and your firm? Geraldine, we’ll start with you.
Geraldine: Okay, so Acumum Legal and Advisory is a Malta-based law firm. We have presence in UK and Ireland, but our main presence is here. This is where we’re based. We provide a range of services of a legal nature. We do have other services within the group that are related or ancillary. We have a few, as you will see in this podcast, services that we offer in different fields. Mine is the marine and aviation, so yacht registration, trip registration, aircraft registration, and also the management of the companies that hold those assets.
We assist with sales and acquisitions of the assets, so it’s a lot of fun. Registration of mortgages and a whole range of legal issues in the marine and aviation field.
In aviation, we also set up what we call aircraft owning companies, which then will get aircraft operator certificates in order to operate aircraft on a commercial basis where that is required, so to charter them out. So that’s me.
Lindsay: That’s great. John, how about you?
John: Yes, well, I’m a Maltese advocate, same as Geraldine Spiteri is, I joined Acumum while I was in the final stages of my studies, and I’ve been here ever since.
My practice area is quite varied. I would say my main focus is corporate law and commercial agreements. Being a boutique firm, we do have to dip our fingers into quite a few other things besides our main focus areas. So, I assist pharmaceutical companies with their legal and corporate requirements. We do trusts and foundations as well here in Malta, and a little bit of intellectual property from my end and charities, volunteer organizations.
Lindsay: That’s very cool.
So, let’s dive into our questions. What would you say is your biggest challenge at the moment, and how are you working to overcome that?
John, we’ll start with you.
John: Well, being from Malta, the word on everybody’s lips right now is compliance, compliance, compliance.
Since the implementation of the fifth anti-money laundering directive with the sixth underway now, the level of regulation and compliance has skyrocketed. So, I would say it is less of a challenge for us. More the challenge really lies with bridging the gap between a client’s expectations of what the level of compliance should be and having to educate almost on regulatory requirements and that sort of thing.
But in terms of working to overcome it, I would say it’s really getting ourselves organized, having the right processes and systems in place to make it as painless as possible for everybody.
I don’t know if Geraldine had anything else to add.
Geraldine: Yes, yes, yes, indeed. In my case, especially with the yacht more than the planes, you have to explain to them why they can’t just take decisions in connection with their toy. They can’t just make payments in and out of the company’s accounts. They cannot just sign-up people or service providers with aircraft.
Aircraft is very, very heavily regulated, so people who own aircraft are not of that mindset. But with the yachts, oh gosh, getting them to understand that we do provide a regulated service besides, of course, the usual maritime flag-related requirements. You have a lot of this anti-money laundering stuff that tends to be heavily paper based, especially in our jurisdiction.
We do find that there’s shifts going on to a positive side. They’re trying to reduce paper and do more electronically. But until that happens, we still have to meet the client’s demand as well as the authorities’ demand. So yes, compliance remains the biggest challenge.
Lindsay: That makes a lot of sense. I mean, I know in the US, certainly working with banks, money laundering has gotten stricter and stricter.
Geraldine: Indeed, indeed.
Lindsay: So, going along with that a little bit, can you talk to us about the current state of the market and what that means for you and your clients?
Geraldine: Okay, for me, that’s a very broad question. When it comes to yachts and aviation, high net worth individuals found that these planes made it possible to travel when there were restrictions. And then they got used to not having to face crowds, queues, and airports, so it became a very big possibility. It’s like the doors opened.
And in fact, there are more requests for aircraft than there are aircrafts on the market so it’s a buyer’s market. It’s a sellers’ market, sorry, the buyers are having to haggle that way. With yachts as well in the time of the pandemic, you weren’t allowed to go here and there. But if you were on the yacht and secluded within your bubble, then it was fine. Now, that gave a lot of people a taster. They said, “Well, if I can’t invest in running around the world, I’ll invest in my yacht. That will allow me to travel anyway, travel when I want and in privacy.”
So, people began to start to buy timeshare in yachts as a precursor to actually acquiring their own. And that has created quite a market, both for new build yachts as well as for actual charters. So, the yachts, which would manage, would be able to fill up their schedule over the summer months. Here in the Mediterranean, the charter season is like May to September-ish, depending on the weather. In the Caribbean, it’s about to start now till about April. So, wherever you are, there’s always a good few months where you can have a good charter.
So yes, in terms of yachting, the market is quite strong as well. That means there’s quite a lot of work to go around, thankfully. If you know what you’re doing, if you can provide a good service with a smile, personalized but professional, you maintain the professionality, then you’re in for business at the moment.
That’s what I’m feeling. I’ll let John fill in on his side of the market.
John: It’s a little less focused from my end since I deal mainly with corporate clients. The market is buoyant regardless of the triple whammy, in our case of Brexit, COVID, and the current situation in Ukraine.
The main clients that we’ve seen that there are quite a few opportunities with our clients operating in the renewable sector, FinTech, software, there’s still opportunities. It goes back to the limitations on that, relates to what we were discussing previously about increased regulation and compliance.
But ultimately that’s where we come in our jobs. Our job as lawyers really is to craft tailored solutions for our clients to basically get the deal done. Otherwise, we have a very positive outlook on the current business landscape. We look to the future.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’s great. So, all of that is very interesting and a lot of it is things that I wouldn’t have thought of necessarily. So, you’ve really given me a good and interesting perspective on the marketplace from Malta. I’m sure our listeners, too.
So changing gears just a little bit, can you tell us both what’s the biggest area related to either your practices or the legal industry in general that you’re most curious about at the moment?
Geraldine: From the yacht and aviation side, the biggest issue that’s going on in both markets is the sustainability.
Here in Europe, we’ve had protestors attacking or not… I mean, not attacking, let’s say affecting the aviation shows. We had EBACE, which is a European Business Aviation Conference and Expo, landing on the tarmac, chaining themselves to planes, all on sustainable claims. There was a big super yacht which was splashed with orange paint twice, so they did it. She was cleaned up and repaired, and they did it again in the name of sustainability.
Alongside which what they are not seeing probably is the development of sustainable aviation fuel, which is where you grow green products specifically to create this fuel. That is not carbon plus. As well as the development of more and more technologies to make yachts environmentally sustainable.
This year I’ve just been to the Cannes Yacht Show, and there were quite a few yachts which claims to be zero emission, less emission, or you can pay to make up for your emissions or maybe do something else. Recyclable initiatives, like they pick up plastic bottles from the ocean and they convert them into a myriad of things. So that is one very interesting area.
Perhaps another is I have yet to see anybody who is himself or herself sanctioned to challenge the seizure of a yacht or aircraft without due process in court.
I’ve long thought about it. I’ve long thought about it, and someone did mention it on LinkedIn. I have not seen it happen yet. So, this would be really curious.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. I mean sustainability is certainly on all of our minds, too. Yes, especially as you say with the super yachts, and in aviation certainly, it must be quite an interesting topic for you in the fields that you are addressing. To see and advise your clients in the best way to move forward when it is such an interesting and something that’s so near term for all of us.
Geraldine: Yes, yes, yes. John-
Lindsay: Oh. Go ahead, Geraldine.
Geraldine: No, no. John has a few good ideas.
John: Oh, you’re too kind.
Well, I mean in terms of the practice areas that I’m curious about, Malta has introduced a raft of legislation relating to cannabis, specifically medical cannabis. That’s another emerging area that we’re quite interested in as a firm.
On the subject, as a firm collectively, we are also quite active in the energy space, both renewable as well as oil and gas. It’s a sector we practice in. Yes, it’s a very, very interesting area to assist clients in, especially when it comes to financing, restructuring, because it touches on a lot of different aspects.
Lindsay: Well, and I would imagine with both of those areas, both oil and gas, and then moving towards being more sustainable-
John: Sustainable, yes.
Lindsay: … considering the war in Ukraine happening and all of Europe needing to find ways to have new energy options, that’s a really hot topic for everybody in Europe right now. Malta being in such an interesting location is well-placed to help clients find different options for energy.
Geraldine: Yes. Yes, yes, indeed, indeed. We’ll see what I mean. There are banks which give finance as long as you have some sustainability.
This is in Europe, but I heard that it was spreading to North Africa as well. I went to a conference, and they said that some banks would only give finance if there was some kind of green plan in the business plan of the person or entity seeking finance. So that’s maybe brought in with the yachts and claims. Look at an environmentally sustainable plant, let’s say, if you’re talking about, or a toy, is going to be more expensive from a technical point of view for the owner. But we hope that they would be willing to spare this money.
Lindsay: Absolutely. Yes, absolutely.
So, moving on, can you tell us something interesting about yourself that most people don’t know?
Geraldine: John, tell us your secret.
John: Oh, for heaven sakes. Well, COVID struck, and I got into sewing.
Lindsay: What are you sewing?
John: Mainly theatrical costumes and certain bits and pieces for every day, that kind of thing. Mainly because I hate myself because it’s definitionally complex and very, very difficult to get the hang of. But hey, I like a challenge.
Lindsay: That’s very cool. You’re using a sewing machine, presumably?
John: Yes. The family sewing machine was lying around and I commandeered it. I enrolled at the University of YouTube and taught myself.
Lindsay: I love that.
Geraldine: And he’s quite good at it.
Lindsay: That’s wonderful. I love that so much. That is a very cool thing.
And Geraldine, how about you?
Geraldine: Well, I’m pretty much an open person, so there’s very little that people don’t know. I do have a boat myself. I’m curious about getting my flying license, so what I do for work also spills out a little bit into my free time.
I have a lot of hobbies. There isn’t much that doesn’t interest me, just like John. I sometimes dabble a bit with my paints. I like to read a lot, although with the distractions of social media that’s changing a bit.
Lindsay: I understand that.
Geraldine: Yes. I’d probably rather tinker with a spanner than a broom, so I’d rather tinker in a car engine or on a boat. Little bit and bob rather than tinker around the house. So that’s me.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’s a good way to understand your clients too because you’re involved in the same areas that they are.
Geraldine: Yes. Including not doing housework myself, if I can.
Lindsay: I don’t blame you.
Geraldine: Agree, agree, agree. There you are.
Lindsay: So, who has been your biggest mentor over your career?
Geraldine: For me, I would say Geraldine Noel is one of the biggest because, well, I’ve been a lawyer for 20 years, and so has she. She’s been around for the last 20, and her international experience was something to which I wasn’t really exposed. When I had been working with other firms with an international element, I would often pick up the phone to her. What am I going to do now? We also worked together in an international firm, so she was my first experience in international aspects of business.
I also was heavily mentored by Dr. Patrick Galea, who’s a Maltese lawyer with whom I did my two years of compulsory court practice in order to get my warrant. He has also taught me a lot about drafting under court system here in Malta, drafting respect for colleagues, the backbone of being a lawyer in Malta. Which it’s the continental style from the European continent, respect for your colleagues, the way you talk to them, the way you hold them with certain dignity, which has come from there.
So, I’ve had the really local lawyer’s approach, although he does a lot of international work as well. But it’s like the Maltese course was his main area of work, although we did some contract drafting and negotiation. And then for the huge corporates, that has been the other job in my firm. That’s me.
Lindsay: And how about you, John?
John: Yes, I would say Geraldine Noel as well, who is the director and the founder of our firm.
As I said before, I came into the firm as a trainee. I had just, well, some time ago now. I had just finished university at the time. Having done my court practice with a really local lawyer, it was really refreshing to get an international perspective, which I think is quite unique especially in a small country like Malta. Yes, yes.
Lindsay: That’s great. That’s great. We do love Geraldine at the ILN, so I’m really pleased and hopefully she’ll listen to this and she’ll know how much you guys appreciate her.
So, let’s talk a little bit about what most people misunderstand about your field of work. That can either be specifically the practice that you each practice or in general, the legal field overall.
John, do you want to start?
John: Sure, sure. I mean, I could be smart about this answer and say, oh, everybody thinks we’re running around in suits like Ally McBeal and Boston Legal and all of this. But in actual fact, the biggest misconception is that it involves a lot of research, a lot of desk work, a lot of bashing our heads together internally to try and devise a sensible solution for a client.
That is the biggest misconception, the fact that we have all of the answers right off the bat. Most of time the answers come with hard work and consideration of all of the different elements and weaving all of these different strands into a rope.
Lindsay: That’s a great way of putting it.
Geraldine: Yes. From my end, there’s two strings to this. A lot of people think that I’m always running around on board a yacht and plane. I wish it were the case, but it’s not. They tell me, oh, you must be jet-setting. No. I wish, but no.
It’s less glamorous than it seems. Although I do get to travel quite a bit, and I do get to see a couple of those lovelies. But the truth is that I have managed the yacht, which I’ve never seen and cannot even hope to see, on a small scale.
And this is cute. You get your friends asking you for separation or divorce advice because they think you do court work just because you’re a lawyer. Sometimes I look at them, I mean, what’s the answer I have to give them? Probably from the years I did do court work, because there was a time I was doing a little bit of general practice, and they’re almost disappointed when I tell them I can refer you to someone. No, just because I’m a lawyer doesn’t mean I do court work. Or maybe will help you fight your neighbor or install a letter box in the pillar between your door and hers.
So, it’s neither super yachts and planes for dinner every night, nor is it doing divorces for breakfast. There’s a lot that’s managerial about my role in particular. There’s lots of paperwork. You have to see that the yachts’ papers are in order, her bills are paid, and that the crew are getting paid, that the agreements are in place, the marinas are getting paid, and all that.
So yes, it’s actually quite funny when you could start to parse these comments. I think you really don’t know, do you?
Lindsay: It’s so fun. You’re absolutely right. They either think you’re jet-setting or you’re doing family law.
Lindsay: Nothing in between.
Geraldine: Exactly. Little do they know when. For some people, the biggest deal is maybe if you talk to them about 5,000 deals, it’s a real lot. Whereas in my field, a 5,000 deal is nothing. So the responsibility is also for people tell you, “Oh, you could spare a few minutes to talk to me because I have something important.” No, not when I’m in the midst of something big like that.
Lindsay: That’s right, that’s right.
Geraldine: Yes, even the complexity is not well understood, obviously, because each sees their own area of work.
Lindsay: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.
So, before we wrap up, I have two questions for you. One is what would you say is the most important lesson that you’ve learned over your career so far?
Geraldine: Networking, networking, networking. When I was doing my international maritime law masters, Professor David Attard, who was one of the biggest mentors, I forgot to mention him, he had this mantra: networking, networking, networking.
And in this course where people from like 36 different countries do international maritime law, I already believed in networking as a good source of knowledge and context. But this cemented it.
Recently I went to give a talk at this International Maritime Institute, and I asked the students, “Does Attard still tell you networking, networking, networking?” And yes, he still does. So, there you go. That was, I think, the biggest lesson. I’ve managed to give advice, not just take and take, take, take.
But yes, it’s the best resource, best tool that you can have, almost more than your books.
Lindsay: I agree with that. I can’t say no to that.
Geraldine: Hence ILN, isn’t it?
Lindsay: That’s right. That’s right.
What do you think, John?
John: Yes, definitely. Networking is extremely important.
I thought about this question. I thought to myself listening and keeping an open mind is a really important one. Because as lawyers, as people, we tend to be very fond of the sound of our own voices. And if you stop and you listen and you keep an open mind, you might learn something.
Lindsay: That’s true. No, that’s true. And also with your clients, I mean it’s-
John: Yes, of course.
Lindsay: When you listen to what your clients are saying, you might find out what the real problem is.
John: Definitely. Definitely.
Lindsay: Yes, yes. And so, wrapping up, one of my favorite questions to ask is, what is one thing you’re enjoying right now that has nothing to do with work?
Geraldine: My boat.
Lindsay: Oh, good. I’m glad you’re enjoying that.
John: On the same vein, we’re very blessed with the weather in Malta. It’s September now time of recording, so the heat has died down a little bit. We have a very nice, sunny, but not too hot September right now. Which I’m enjoying going to the beach very much and basically swimming and swimming and sitting on the sand reading.
So that’s pretty much what I’m enjoying.
Lindsay: That’s perfect.
Geraldine: The beach and the sand.
Lindsay: I’ve been to Malta, and it is beautiful there. So, I highly recommend anyone who hasn’t been to go.
Geraldine: Indeed, indeed, indeed.
John: Yes, come to Malta. We’ll tell everybody where to go and eat and where to go and swim.
Geraldine: Yes, there’s plenty of time. October tends to be quite nice.
Lindsay: Yes. I think that’s when, shameless plug, I think that’s when we brought the ILN conference there was early October. It was gorgeous.
John: Yes, exactly.
Lindsay: Just gorgeous.
Geraldine: There you go.
Lindsay: So, thank you both very much. I really appreciate your time. To all of our listeners, thank you very much for tuning in. We’ll be back again next week with another guest. In the meantime, please take a moment to rate, review, and subscribe on Apple Podcast or wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you very much.
John: Thank you so much for having us.
Geraldine: Thank you, Lindsay.