In an exclusive interview with Who’s Who Legal, Suzana Fagundes Ribeiro de Oliveira discusses her career, the changing role of in-house counsel, and the development of female leadership in both the corporate and legal worlds.
Name: Suzana Fagundes Ribeiro de Oliveira
Company: ArcelorMittal Brasil
Role: Head of legal, compliance and institutional relations for Central and South America
“Companies and government are facing complex and new challenges in the current world that need different responses; a diverse leadership is better prepared to shape such responses.”
For Suzana Fagundes Ribeiro de Oliveira, the time has come to make women in leadership a priority initiative, not only in Latin America but across the world. As head of legal, compliance and institutional relations at ArcelorMittal Brasil she is a great example of the type of leadership that women in the region can achieve. Since taking on the role in 2014 she has gone on to promote women’s interests in business as founding director of the NGO Women in Leadership in Latin America (WILL), a forum that looks to provide a strong network of support to women in their career development.
According to the 2016 edition of Latin Lawyer 250, women comprise on average only 21 per cent of partners in Latin America. When it comes to assessing the scarcity of women in leadership roles throughout the region, Brazil is an exception: it is considered one of the main countries in Latin America where significant progress in being made. However, as Fagundes Ribeiro de Oliveira puts it, “a lot of work still needs to be done”, particularly when it comes to private legal practice.
Tell us about your role at ArcelorMittal.
I am the regional general counsel and compliance officer for Central and South America for ArcelorMittal Brasil, and am also in charge of the company’s media and institutional relations in the country.
You spent some of the earlier part of your career working in private practice, as an international associate at Shearman & Sterling and then senior associate at Machado Meyer Sendacz e Opice Advogados. What motivated you to pursue a career in-house?
The experience I had in those outstanding firms was exciting and valuable. I had the chance to meet extraordinary people, to work on complex and challenging deals and to understand how law firms work. However, before joining those firms I had worked in-house, hence the invitation I received to structure the legal department of ArcelorMittal Brasil – the opportunity to make my work more strategic and business oriented seemed a proposal difficult to resist. I had little idea of all the challenges I would face, but I have no doubt it was the right move to me. Being able to add value to the business by being a trustworthy adviser is what I like the most in my career.
How has the role of the in-house lawyer changed over the last few years?
It has changed a lot. More than ever, in-house lawyers are required to work as business partners by actively participating in the decision making process, providing solutions and protecting the reputation of the company and its management.
What are the main qualities that you look for in a practitioner or team when seeking external counsel?
In addition to legal expertise and a good reputation, I seek external counsel that act in the same way in-house lawyers are expected to act, who are solution and result-oriented, think outside the box and understand the client’s needs. They should also make themselves available when needed and be flexible in terms of negotiating legal fees.
In addition to your role at ArcelorMittal, you are also a founding director of the NGO Women in Leadership in Latin America (WILL). Tell us a bit about this initiative.
WILL is an organisation whose mission is to become a premier women’s business forum that provides executive or aspiring executive businesswomen and leaders, located in or doing business with Latin America, with access to a strong global network of executive women with a stake in Latin America. It also offers educational and career development support for the purpose of the advancement of such women throughout their careers into leadership and executive positions across all industries and sectors.
Since the organisation was founded in 2014, how have the business and legal worlds reacted to the initiative?
Little progress has occurred in the world over the past three years in terms of an increase of female presence in leadership positions. According to a report released by Grant Thornton in July 2016, women occupy around 24 per cent of the leadership positions in the world and if the current rhythm is maintained, even in 2060 gender equality will not be achieved. On the other hand, the work being developed by WILL has progressed and we are finalising the development of a guide with best practices in increasing women’s presence in leadership.
What do you think is currently the most significant barrier to female leadership in business?
I believe that a lot of work still needs to be done in the private and public sectors to increase the representation of women in leadership positions, and that the current scenario will only change once men and women understand the benefits of having the diversity of views each one can bring to the decision-making process. Companies and government are facing complex and new challenges in the current world that need different responses; a diverse leadership is better prepared to shape such responses.
Would you say there are any challenges that women face that are unique to those working in the legal industry?
At least in Brazil, I have seen more progress and the increase of women in leadership positions in the legal industry than in others, particularly in the general counsel role. Law firms, however, still have a long way to go to have a more diverse partnership profile.
What can the legal industry do to encourage more women to reach the top level of the profession?
New generations of men and women seek a more balanced life and flexible work. Organisations in general will need to adapt to this trend in order to attract the most talented people. This change will also address an important demand of women who still have a major role at home.
What will be the biggest challenge for the generation of woman behind you looking to achieve leadership roles in their career?
In my opinion the biggest challenge current and future generations of women face is to convince society, particularly those in leadership positions, of the value of diversity in leadership. Such diversity will not occur naturally. In order to be achieved, it will require active engagement and specific actions from top management to make this change.