In an exclusive interview with Who’s Who Legal, Ben Lee speaks about his role at Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific Pty Ltd, the key qualities he looks for when instructing external counsel, as well as key regulatory and technological developments impacting the automotive industry.
Over the last year, the automotive industry has dominated the press, with both setbacks and moments of pioneering innovation. In September 2015, the industry was rocked when Volkswagen was alleged to have installed “defeat devices” into approximately 11 million diesel cars worldwide. However, the past year has also seen substantial progress in the development of autonomous driving vehicles. Initially thought to be a concept driven by technology giant Google, car manufacturers, such as General Motors, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz have also invested heavily in the research. With their ability to collect large amounts of data quickly and effectively, the manufacturers’ prospects for autonomous vehicles improve every day.
As part of the Daimler group, Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific Pty Ltd specialises in producing premium cars, vans, trucks and buses that possess market leading design, safety and comfort. Daimler’s distribution of 100 different vehicle models across a global platform of 200 countries worldwide, places the company in the thick of the international automotive industry, subsequently opening it up to multi-jurisdictional legal pressures and often in need of external legal counsel.
Lee has spent the majority of his career in corporate, energy and resources private practice roles at Clayton Utz (Darwin), Allens (Brisbane) and Clifford Chance (Moscow). He later made the move in-house taking up a position in the gambling industry and has since become general counsel and company secretary of Mercedes-Benz Australia/Pacific Pty Ltd.
WWL: Tell us about your role.
As general counsel I lead a team of seven, focused on handling the legal caseload of our businesses across Australia and New Zealand.
MBAuP is Daimler AG’s distributor in Australia of Mercedes-Benz passenger cars, vans, trucks and buses, Freightliner trucks and Fuso trucks. We also have our own retail passenger car and truck dealerships, so as an importer, wholesaler and retailer, we cover the whole supply chain and all in all we have quite a few businesses and a large portfolio of products. Our in-house practice is therefore varied and interesting.
I also sit on MBAuP’s Board of Management and get a unique and valuable insight into how the overall businesses are run, which helps me to more effectively give commercially orientated legal advice.
WWL: What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?
Our in-house team is required to provide legal services across a broad range of practice areas including corporate, M&A, litigation, product liability and franchising, and so ensuring that collectively the team covers the range of primary practice areas is essential. Therefore, a background among the team in private practice, in-house and/or government is desirable to achieve that ideal mix of legal expertise. Being an excellent communicator is also important – to translate legal concepts concisely and quickly into the language of the business – as well as being a trusted adviser who is engaged in the business while maintaining the independence of the legal function.
WWL: What qualities do you look for when selecting external counsel?
We use external counsel who demonstrate an understanding of our business and provide fast and concise solutions to achieve the business’ commercial objectives. If we have gone outside for legal services, this usually means that we need particular expertise to assist our business, and therefore uncertain legal advice or a lecture on the law is unhelpful – we need solutions.
WWL: Tell us about any recent projects that your team has been working on. Which law firm(s) did you hire? Do you tend to hire the firm or individual?
We use a variety of large and small firms across Australia. We recently divested three of our flagship passenger car dealerships and were assisted by Ashurst’s M&A team in Melbourne. We also regularly use Johnson Winter & Slattery for competition law compliance and advice. For larger and more complex matters, we tend to hire particular firms according to the expertise required, whereas for smaller matters or where previous knowledge of our business is critical, we would generally look to individuals.
WWL: Have there been any major legal developments in the Australian market over the past year that have greatly affected the company?
The increased focus on privacy and data protection from a community expectation and legislative perspective is becoming more important to our industry and product planning as our vehicles advance in autonomous driving and connectivity. This is an exciting area of development.
WWL: What would you say is the biggest challenge facing the automotive industry at the moment?
The Australian automotive industry is heavily regulated so this presents challenges for the introduction of new technologies that the current regulatory environment did not anticipate. Some other current developments and discussions in the industry may also have an impact, including the end of local manufacturing, the rise of local innovation and possible personal parallel importing.
WWL: How do you see the automotive market developing over the next five years?
It’s hard to say, but I think it will be steady with some unprecedented challenges brought on by advancement in technologies such as autonomous driving, vehicle connectivity, intelligent transport systems and the collection and use of big data. It will be important for the local regulatory environment to be flexible enough to support innovations in these areas.