A voyage of discovery into the world of in-house legal advisers from around the world awaited at the Global Counsel Conference in New York

The beginning of June saw me head across the Atlantic to New York, at the invitation of the International Law Office, to attend the Global Counsel Conference. In the past the ILG had the huge benefit of Colin Anderson, formerly of Standard Life, as our vice chair and he was well tapped in to the global in-house world and its concerns. It was now time for ILG to head back into the water, without Colin, hence my trip.

The conference took place in the elegant surroundings of the Grand Hyatt Hotel, tucked between the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Station. Just to make me feel at home, having left a Scottish summer behind, the rain poured all day and the wind howled down 42nd Street. Delegates truly came from all over the world. While the majority were American, there were counsel from Canada, Australia, South Africa, the UK, numerous EU countries, China, Mexico and Malaysia. Most delegates were general counsel to corporate entities but many, including myself, headed legal offices in regulatory and more clearly public sector organisations.

What struck me first was the confidence they exuded when coming together as in-house counsel. There was nothing apologetic about their views of their role and worth to their clients. The second striking matter was the similarities in the issues that concerned them, whether as part of the management team of multi-billion dollar companies in electronics in the Far East, or as a new appointee legal head to a regulatory authority.

The main themes of the conference were risk and compliance, wearing a number of guises. The first speaker set the tone by looking at “Managing risk and exercising leadership”. Appropriately, this was Tony Wales, head of legal at the British Standards Institution (BSI) Group in London, which sets the ISO standards we are all familiar with. He described what excellence meant in practice and finished with a classical quote from Aristotle to a contemporary concern: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

He also posed a question. What is ISO 27001? The answer eluded me, but on finding out it is a certification in information security management, and knowing how important information security is in my world, I went straight back to my head of IT to ask what we are doing about it. However, he did know about it and reassured me as to what we are doing. Needless to say, Tony Wales thinks it is very important in reaching “excellence”, and said we should all be asking such questions of our heads of IT. (See also Journal, June 2013, 37 – Editor.)

Sessions followed on anti-bribery and corruption strategies, with constant references to the UK regime; on structures for best management of risk and compliance; employment and transferability of contracts and obligations, again with reference to US/UK transfers; and a most entertaining session on investing in new markets. We had the considered and clearly very experienced view from Peter J Rees QC, legal director of Royal Dutch Shell, based in London and the Netherlands, and a practical and realistic approach from Audrey Chen, who practises as a partner in a Chinese firm advising companies who wish to invest in or do business in China and who is also qualified in New York and California. Clearly, doing business in China is not for the fainthearted, and a good lawyer to advise on all aspects of that business is a must.

Regular breakfast, coffee and lunch breaks meant that talking to other delegates was easy. The Scottish accent was a novelty and a good opener to conversations. The French, Norwegian and Belgian delegates and this Scot quickly found each other and passed our newly made contacts around. I met the head of the New York Bar Association, and to my disappointment his world is apparently nothing like Law & Order. I also had an insight as to what it is like to practise in Mexico in-house.

After the conference proper, a group of us met with our ILO hosts to discuss more particular in-house issues. From our different, and perhaps more European perspectives, we discussed the status of, and difficulties posed for, the practice of in-house lawyers in certain European jurisdictions, particularly following the ECJ cases on standing, independence and legal professional privilege. We had all been struck by the easily transferable qualification of in-house counsel in the USA, albeit subject to state accreditation, which applies to all lawyers. The difference, even between Scotland and France, in being able to practise as in-house counsel in other jurisdictions was marked. In Scotland, having a practising certificate from the Law Society of Scotland puts me way ahead of my French equivalents in available options. There were clearly similar interests to be explored, and we have agreed to keep in contact to consider these issues further and establish a loose group to inform our continuing understanding.

After a long day at the conference, it was time to cross the road to the Cipriani for a champagne reception, the Global Awards Counsel Dinner, and the presentation of the awards themselves. It was a glittering occasion. They know how to do an awards dinner in New York! It was still raining much later when I crossed the road back to my hotel, this time with the help of an usher and his umbrella and with a large number of new business cards in my bag.

Back in Scotland (and it is raining again as I write), I welcome the conversations with the wide variety of in-house counsel I met. There is clearly a lot to learn from their experience which we can apply here in Scotland. While we are a relatively small jurisdiction, I found that we too had much of relevance to add to the in-house experience abroad, and I suspect ILG will need to pack its bags again in the future.

The Author
Lynda Towers, chair, In-house Lawyers Group
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