We asked Fernando Garcia, vice president legal at CargoJet and the winner of the Thought Leader of the Year award at the 2018 Global Counsel Awards, his opinion on what it takes to be a successful in-house counsel, the best way to advise senior leadership and what winning the award meant to him.

Describe your current role (responsibilities, size of team, structure).

I have recently taken on the role of vice president legal at CargoJet. This is a very interesting role in what is a key important sector (air cargo) and within an entrepreneurial and fast growing, company. I have only been in this role for a few months, so I am still trying to ‘learn’ my role and adapt to the role and its responsibilities. My responsibilities include providing support for aircraft purchases, contracts, labour relations, compliance and other issues that come up from time to time, such as supporting business development initiatives.

I was previously the general counsel at Nissan Canada. I held that role for over five years and it entailed supporting the business as it sought to grow its business in Canada. During my time at Nissan we were able to achieve numerous years of record growth through strong leadership, strong teamwork, working with the dealer network and investing in products. The legal role there was predominantly based on handling franchise/dealership matters, contracts, litigation management and all of the other things involved in providing legal advice and support to a national subsidiary of a major global car company.

What led you to a career in-house?

I love the practice of law. I like the important role that lawyers play within society and the theory of law. That being said, I also have a passion for business and labour relations/human resources. This was my motivation for completing a master’s of labour relations, a civil and common law degree and most recently a part-time master’s of business administration in strategic management, as I see these three realms as interlinked and representing a three-legged stool that supports our economy. I am adamant that a good in-house counsel needs to understand the business strategy and environment within which the client operates; they need to be able to assist in managing and leveraging the most important resource, its people; and finally, they must be able to provide valuable and strategic legal advice. A career in any of these three alone would have left me unfulfilled. I find that my career as an in-house counsel has allowed me to incorporate these three practice areas in a way that no other career path could have.

In your career, what has been the most challenging situation that you have faced? What are the most significant challenges that in-house lawyers are likely to face over the next few years?

The most interesting challenges I have faced over my career have been related to the quick pace of change in technology and the increased complexity in the regulatory framework within which our businesses operate. Don’t get me wrong: these have created spectacular opportunities for entrepreneurial lawyers who are comfortable with change, but it requires that we have a constant finger on the pulse to keep up to speed with the change. Access to information has made our jobs easier as we now have an unimagined scope of information before us; but on the other side of the coin, it has also increased the risk of having information fall into the wrong hands. This has made it critical that lawyers give advice and support ensuring compliance with regard to privacy, data protection and many other new areas of practice that in the past were merely sub-considerations of other larger practice subject matters. Similarly, compliance with the growing web of regulations at a local, national and international level has increased the risk levels faced by national and international operations. This makes it increasingly important that in-house lawyers are well versed in the business operations and processes that are critical to the operations. The old days of separating business from legal considerations and decision making has long passed. Lawyers must now wear legal hats, but also business, compliance, government relations and multiple other hats.

Are there particular types of legal issues that you routinely refer to outside counsel? And what kind of matters do you tend to handle in-house?

Over the last 10 years as a general counsel I have tended to refer to outside counsel on two types of matter. First, litigation: throughout my career, I have headed smaller or mid-sized legal departments. Because of this, I did not have the resources to directly handle the litigation process. Rather, my role was to select external counsel, work with them to develop a litigation strategy and then managing the litigation process. Depending on the amount of litigation handled, it may make sense to bring this work in-house. However, my cost benefit analysis has not yet lead me to the conclusion that this is something that I needed to do internally. Second, general counsel and in-house legal departments are generally like a family doctor. We have a broad knowledge base and can help to identify red flags and take on many of the more routine matters. However, at some point, a specialist will be required to assist. In my experience there have been unique skill sets that I have had to send out to external counsel, such as franchise matters, tax issues and some complex corporate matters. The goal in these cases is to learn from working with these professionals to minimise over time the dependence on their advice. As they say, an effective general counsel or in-house counsel never stops learning!

What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?

I am a big believer that a successful and effective in-house counsel is one that acts like a business person with a law degree first and as a lawyer second. The key is to be a part of the strategic decision making and to work with multi-disciplinary teams to allow the client to reach its objectives, while minimising risk. Consequently, I believe that in-house counsel must be:

  • business savvy and possessing a fundamental knowledge of business and finance;
  • knowledgeable of the business and industry within which the client operates;
  • always willing to learn, be a part of the solution and adapt to change;
  • able to multi-task and a problem solver;
  • work effectively as part of a team or individually; and
  • always thinking of ways to increase efficiency, cut costs or expedite the process by which decisions are made.

A successful in-house counsel is not someone with a reputation of saying ‘no’. There is nothing worse than heading a legal team that has the reputation of being the ‘department where ideas go to die’.” It is critical that the legal department work tirelessly with the business team to find solutions to get to the finish line, with as little risk as possible.

What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?

The key consideration for in-house counsel in advising senior leadership is the fact that they are balancing many constraints such as lack of resources and time pressures, as well as stretching performance objectives and creating results. The role of in-house counsel is to give them the necessary support to meet these objectives while not creating (or at least minimising) legal or regulatory risk. This mindset is critical because when the legal team is seen as a partner rather than just a necessary step of the process, it will be included in issues earlier and will have a great voice at the executive table.

How does the legal department contribute to your company’s growth?

At an operational level, as noted above, the legal department should be a strategic partner helping the business team to generate options that meet the business objectives while minimising risk. But there is also a role for in-house counsel to play in contributing to the company’s long-term growth. This was best expressed by Philippe Coen, vice president and director, legal, at the Walt Disney Company in France, when he described the role of the in-house counsel as Jiminy Cricket, or “the conscience of the organisation”. By ensuring that the company acts ethically and is aligned with international standards, and by protecting the goodwill of the company through advocating and enforcing compliance with policies and procedures, in-house counsel can play this important role of securing the long-term growth and profitability of the company.

With regard to your industry, are there any significant developments worth highlighting?

Since I have just made a transition from the auto to the airline/cargo industry, it may be premature for me to speak about the unique challenges in these industries. That being said, I can speak to the unique challenges within the legal profession. There are many law graduates who are looking to enter into the profession, but are finding their options and supply of opportunities limited. Saddled with extensive debt and often armed with little practical, work-ready knowledge and experience, these graduates are in a dire position. There are many elements and complexities to the problem, but it is essential and our obligation as lawyers to look into this issue and seek solutions. Especially problematic is the fact that many of these graduates who are struggling to find opportunities, as a result of a lack of professional networks, mentors and multiple other barriers, tend to be predominantly diverse graduates. These students did all that was asked of them, they often juggled work and academic obligations to get into university and then law school, only to find the door slammed when they come to cash the cheque that was promised to them if they worked hard and studied. Consequently, not only must we work to enhance diversity and inclusiveness within our profession to create the necessary networks and mentorship opportunities, but we must also refocus our law schools to develop work-ready professionals with the entrepreneurial, tech-savvy and T-shaped skills that are essential for succeeding in the profession of tomorrow.

If not a lawyer, what would you be?

I have always held the belief that what was meant to be will be. I found myself serendipitously in the practice of law, but with my broad level of interest in entrepreneurship, human resources, business, psychology, political sciences and economics, I really would have been happy in any profession within these fields. Luckily for me, the general counsel of tomorrow needs to be able to have an understanding of many of these and other areas. The general counsel of tomorrow needs to truly be a T-shaped lawyer, able to wear many hats and understand the many forces that affect the practice of law and business today. For example, legal technology will fundamentally change how we practise law. Through its application, it can help to standardise routine processes allowing lawyers to provide more cost-efficient legal services to customers who may be more price sensitive but with legitimate access to justice requirements. There are opportunities for lawyers who are able to think differently and who are able to utilise the many tools at their disposal. It is a challenging but interesting time to enter the practice of law.

What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?

Receiving the Thought Leader award at the Global Counsel Awards in New York City would be a tremendous honour and privilege for any lawyer. That being said, the impact on me personally is even greater as a result of the struggles I went through as a young immigrant to Canada. I struggled extensively in elementary and high school, attending five high schools and even taking some time off of school to “find myself” after grade 11.  My high school average was 60%. After many odd jobs and soul searching, I decided to return to school and give it another shot. This time I was more mature and motivated to succeed. I got an 80% average on my last year of high school, which got me into university. From there, I never looked back: I completed a BA in labour studies, a master’s of industrial relations, a civil and common law degree and, most recently, an MBA in strategic management. I have also held the role of general counsel for 10 of the last 12 years since graduating from law school, meaning that I have always continued to learn and expand my knowledge base. My early struggles were very important in helping me to focus, in motivating me to succeed and in ensuring that I value every accomplishment in my career. I have also leverage my story of the early struggles to work with students (in high schools, universities and law schools), especially from diverse communities, to help them understand that barriers can be surmounted and that opportunities exist for everyone, regardless of where you come from, what you have and who you are. The Thought Leader award is therefore not just a wonderful and personally satisfying accolade, but it is also a powerful tool that I can now use to get an audience and have my voice heard when I speak about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness within our profession, as I push for law school reform to meet the changing needs of our profession and as I speak to people in our communities who are looking for their path in life, as I am witness to the fact that a successful career does not always follow a linear trajectory. Thank you so much for your vote of confidence and for this award that will always hold a special place in my heart.

The purpose of the Global Counsel Awards is to identify those in-house counsel, both teams and individuals that excel in their specific roles. The primary aim is to reward lawyers for demonstrable achievements across the full spectrum of in-house responsibility, not simply those who have acted on high-profile transactions.