We asked Nikolas Hübschen, senior vice president of general law and litigation at Uniper SE and the winner of the Litigation Team of the Year award at the 2018 Global Counsel Awards, about 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 am currently senior vice president of general law and litigation of the Uniper group, an energy company which spun off from E.ON. I lead a team of 17 lawyers and we advise various Uniper businesses with a focus on civil law, including in relation to Uniper’s long-term gas purchase contracts, energy storage, energy sales, procurement, construction law, IT and data protection and IP law. In addition, we advise on litigation and arbitration for the entire group.
What led you to a career in-house?
I started my legal career at the law firm Hengeler Mueller – I still profit from that experience and would recommend time in a law firm also for younger colleagues considering working in-house at a later stage of their career. I have always been interested in commercial issues, and worked with a bank before law school, so I made a conscious decision to move in-house to see more of and to be part of business decisions. I deliberately joined the energy industry (starting at E.ON in 2007) because I wanted to help to shape the fundamental changes currently happening across the industry.
In your current role, what is 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 increasing speed in technological development and the growing international interdependence, combined with corresponding changes in the legal and regulatory environment, is probably the biggest challenge; constant and short-term changes to the legal framework make it more difficult to proactively manage legal risks in an industry, like the energy industry, which traditionally has longer investment cycles.
In the future, digitalisation will drastically change not only the industry but also the way in which external and in-house lawyers work. For instance, block-chain technology will require a legal framework which still needs to be developed.
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?
We consider ourselves to be distinguished experts in the energy market and its legal environment; therefore, we generally deal with all contractual matters in-house. We use external counsel for contractual issues only in relation to unusual jurisdictions, or if very specific questions arise where we have limited expertise. For some administrative tasks, such as IP administration, we also use external service providers to benefit from economies of scale. Primarily we use external counsel for disputes, though, in order to benefit from the external expertise in different jurisdictions and due to restrictions from professional duties (eg, in Germany in-house counsel are not allowed to represent the employer).
What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?
A key aspect is understanding the business; you cannot provide high quality legal advice without understanding the commercial goals. In turn, this requires you to be interested in commercial matters in general and in particular in the industry or business you work in. You also need to be able to translate the often complex commercial or technical matters into a legal framework and contracts. Similarly, in disputes the in-house lawyers need to be the ‘transmission belt’ between the internal business or technical experts and the court or tribunal, which comprises legal experts but not generally experts in that business. This skill becomes more and more relevant due to evolving commercial and technical complexities.
What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?
You need to be able to boil the matter down to the key issues and questions which are relevant for the top management – that is, make complex legal issues understandable for non-lawyers with limited time. Moreover, you have to offer a legal solution with its pros and cons (and risks), instead of simply illustrating the problem. However, you also need to speak up in the (rare) cases that there is no appropriate legal solution, with the consequence that such a business opportunity cannot be implemented.
How does the legal department contribute to your company’s growth?
We actively manage risks by providing customised solutions and support the business in its growth and development into new areas by constantly developing our legal skills and knowledge. Where necessary, we defend the legal interests of our company in legal disputes in all jurisdictions where we do business.
With regard to your industry, are there any significant developments worth highlighting?
I believe the most significant development is the constantly growing scope and complexity of regulation of the energy industry, coupled with increasing globalisation and the current political focus on the energy sector, in particular on how energy should be generated in the future.
If not a lawyer, what would you be?
I still very much like being a lawyer. As mentioned, I worked for a bank before becoming a lawyer and enjoyed that as well. However, my childhood dream was to become a pilot.
What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?
The nomination was a big surprise and winning the European and the Global awards was incredible. It is a great appreciation of the hard work of my colleagues, not only in my team but in the legal and compliance department in general, and the many colleagues from business functions who we work with in disputes. Therefore, winning the award for the best litigation team is great because dispute resolution is certainly a team effort. But we also take the award as an incentive to maintain and even improve our work in the future.
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.