Role: Southern Cone General Counsel
Company: Unilever de Argentina SA
You have probably used one of its products in the past week; toiletries, cleaning products, food and beverages all form part of the Unilever portfolio.
The brand that brought Sunlight Soap to the UK in the 19th Century now sells goods all over the world. The company’s presence in Argentina dates back to 1926, the same year that it launched its Clean Hands Campaign, teaching children to wash their hands regularly as part of its child health policy.
The company’s Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay) general counsel, Javier Davila, started his career at Unilever in 1996. He heads a department of 15 people that includes lawyers and paralegals. As counsel to a consumer goods company, the most pressing issues he faces include cross-border agreements where the legal requirements of more than one jurisdiction must be satisfied; marketing law issues such as labelling and advertising; and legal finance matters such as lease or borrowing agreements with banks.
Another very specific issue is regulatory food issues: "Assessing and analysing the impact of the amended Consumer Act Law, enacted a couple of months ago is a massive issue for us, as are labelling and advertising regulatory issues," he says. The government is becoming more involved in labour issues. "These are the most sensitive areas from a litigation perspective and they require careful study," he says.
Davila graduated from Belgrano University, a private law school. He had different experiences before moving in-house: as a student, he worked in the courts before moving to a small private practice commercial law firm. His first in-house appointment was at a construction company in the first year after his graduation. At Unilever, he started out as a general practice lawyer. "That was what engaged me. Where I am today you have to have the flexibility and capacity to understand every bit of the law from commercial to labour matters," he says.
For Davila, the most rewarding part is "the feeling that when I go to the supermarket I can see the products I have helped to shape so that they can appear on the market. Whenever I see an advert, that makes me feel good." Another factor is the people he works with: "it wouldn’t be easy at all without a good working environment in terms of the people." He also values the work-life balance it is possible to achieve in-house.
The managerial aspect of the job is another big plus: "It is one of the things I like most about the job. It’s also about being a businessperson who has the law as a tool for working. You have more managerial skills and the law becomes an aspect of your life rather than the focus of your career," he says.
In terms of business relationships, he feels that communication is key with outside counsel: "understanding what they can provide and how they can add value to our work," he says. Additionally, he feels it is important to achieve a good balance between the work and the service received in terms of costs.
The biggest challenge of in-house work is, he says: "the need for us to have the capacity to reinvent ourselves professionally. Unlike members of the company who have a broader career, we tend to be more focused on the legal side. We need to use our own initiative to reshape how we work internally." It is also important to have a good, communicative relationship with the client: "they are on the phone right away and your service must be delivered right on time. The three greatest attributes are flexibility, communication and the capacity to answer what is being asked of you. It is essential that you are sensible - sensing and identifying the issues of any proposal made by the business from a legal perspective to see whether they are viable," he says.
The greatest impact of Argentina’s recent problems is, "uncertainty in the country. Whichever laws are enacted by the government, they can be questioned by the courts. For example, when the government enacts a constitutional law, it turns out that part of, or the entire law can be considered unconstitutional by the courts," he says. Change is also expected in terms of the entire Argentine legal system. "Precedent does not apply in Argentina at the moment, but this is changing," he says.
Looking to the future, "the network is getting larger. Our work is having an increasingly international impact," he says. "Businesses want to create agreements and contracts with a cross-border impact so we need to learn how to adapt our legal knowledge to rise to these challenges."
Where were you previously employed?
Prior to Unilever I worked as a legal assistant in a small construction company. In October 1996 I joined Unilever as a legal trainee and in 2000 I was seconded to London, working at the corporate centre legal department where I had the chance to work in various international legal transactions (M&A), further developing my professional legal skills.
How big is your legal department?
The legal department provides services to the Southern Cone and it is made up of a strong team of in-house lawyers as well as paralegals, though considering the large scale of Unilever and the day-to-day work load, I would say the legal department size is relatively small.
What percentage of your work is performed by in-house lawyers?
The Legal Function tries to perform its work mostly on an in-house basis, but also supported by external law firms, and this is basically driven by either the amount or the complexity of the work. I firmly believe that if you ought to provide a first-class legal service you need to have the right balance between outside and in-house lawyers. In this respect, part of our role as in-house lawyers is to have a clear understanding of the business needs and how as business partners we can better help find alternative and creative legal solutions in order to achieve the business objectives and in turn manage and decide which issues are to be handled fully in-house and those which need be outsourced.
What are the advantages of doing work in-house?
There are many advantages in doing work in-house, but mainly in line with what I was briefly explaining before, it has to do with the sharper understanding of the business needs and the urgency of the matters; the pragmatic approach in finding solutions to the problems, and more importantly, I would add, by actively anticipating the business-legal issues and minimising the associated risks.
How is life as an in-house counsel different from that of a private sector adviser?
As an in-house counsel the client is also in-house, and by this I mean that the client is right there by your side, in your office, urging for an immediate response, online 24/7 (the answer is needed by...yesterday!). But that is where in-house counsel has a real chance to add value and be part of the decision-making process by actively getting involved from the beginning of the initial phases of the projects and being perceived as someone who adds value.
What qualities make a good in-house lawyer?
The in-house lawyer needs to understand the business; having the ability to translate into simple and straightforward language the complexities of the law and this requires avoiding, to the extent necessary, legal jargon that is otherwise appropriate among lawyers, but not with our business partners. Basically, communication skills are paramount. Another quality that makes a difference for an in-house lawyer are proactivity in early identifying issues and associated risks.
An appreciated attribute is exploring pragmatic solutions. There is neither the time nor the need for long memos and opinions, in other words, synthesis is a must in order to help making the right decisions - having the attitude to challenge oneself by breaking the status quo. Instead of blocking ideas it makes a better start to see how things can be achieved. This could be summarised as bending the rule without breaking it or having common sense, which is "the least common of all senses", as the saying goes.
Finally, even more important is having team spirit. This requires flexibility and empathy, understanding that we are part of an extended team, interacting amongst an interdisciplinary group of people where everybody has something and is expected to contribute to a larger and common objective.
Is the role of the in-house lawyer changing, for example, becoming more specialised?
If one defines specialisation as having the ability and skills to assess a vast range of topics that range from labour law to competition law, marketing law, intellectual property and commercial law. In-house lawyers also need to manage and understand business terms, for instance, accounting costs in managing a budget including direct and indirect costs. Then, we could agree that the role of the in-house lawyer is further evolving to an even more challenging role.
Besides this, the in-house lawyer needs to develop managerial skills in relation to its in-house team as much as lawyers from external law firms. But if I had to point out the most remarkable change of our role, it is that in-house lawyers are business facilitators, where the law is nothing more and nothing less that our competitive tool.
What qualities make a good private practice lawyer?
From my perspective, as an in-house lawyer, I expect the private practice lawyer to complement our in-house service, by understanding the need to get to the point, rapidly identifying the real problem and appreciating how through the more specialised expertise they can certainly contribute and add value in our day-to-day work.
When will you enlist the advice of external advisers?
To a large extent enlisting the advice of external advisers will of course depend on the legal department’s strategy and vision and the resources available to it, but basically this could be driven by the level of expertise required and the resources available in-house to cope with the tasks which need to be addressed on a time- and cost-efficient basis.
Do you see yourself hiring the firm primarily, or the individual?
This may vary. I certainly look up to the firm, its track record and years of practice, but at the end of the day, as with any other organisation, the firm is no other and not less than the people who are part of the firm, and this is the key.
Do you have a regular external corporate firm?
We do have a regular external corporate firm, but we also have other firms for more specific legal issues, and in all cases we look for first-class service; high-speed responses on a cost-efficient basis.
When dealing outside your home jurisdictions, how do you find counsel?
That largely depends on a country-by-country basis but as hard as that sometimes may be we ensure the engagement of first-class legal firms, with a clear understanding of the local issues in those jurisdictions.
What common behaviour from an external adviser or their firm do you find least acceptable?
Not having the flexibility to customise either the service or the scheme for legal fees suitable and in accordance with our needs.
What makes Argentina "a good place to do business"?
Throughout its history despite its many ups and downs, such as the last deep economic and political crisis in 2001, I believe Argentina has proved its capability of dealing with uncertainties, with highly prepared professionals, with great flexibility to adapt to changes and in the long run always proves to be a very good place in which to invest and do business.
What is the most pressing issue facing the legal profession today?
Generally speaking, I would say it is the overall level of uncertainty and an ever increasing level of litigation in areas such as labour and tax, and dealing with governments with a strong trend of intervening in the private field of business. Just to point out an example: enacted laws that later are declared unconstitutional by the courts. These mean uncertainty about the rules in the long run when doing business and that to a great extent means a challenging environment for the lawyers when assessing and providing advice.