Who’s Who Legal interviews Maria Aybar, legal manager of the first ever natural gas liquidification plant in South America, PERU LNG. She discusses the requirements of her role and trends in the in-house legal market.
Name: Maria Julia Aybar
Position: Legal Manager
Company: PERU LNG
Sector: Natural resources
Number of employees: PLNG together with its operating company: approximately 400 employees
The Peruvian government is investing vast amounts into its infrastructure over the next five years in an effort to eliminate poverty and continue its rapid pace of economic growth. An example of one of its bold plans that has come to fruition is the PERU LNG project – one of the largest industrial projects in the country and the first liquid nitrogen gas (LNG) plant in South America, which became fully operational in June 2010. Overseeing the project since its construction phase is the company’s legal advisor, Maria Julia Aybar, who offered Who’s Who Legal an insight into her daily life and the factors she considers when instructing external counsel.
Tell us about your role
I assumed the position of Legal Manager at PERU LNG six years ago after leaving the Muñiz Law Firm, where I had worked for almost 10 years. My role in PERU LNG consists mainly in providing a variety of legal advice to the different areas of the company.
How big is the legal department?
PERU LNG legal department consists of three lawyers other than myself (Verónica Morelli, Solange Cuadros and Cecilia Cahuayme). We cover a wide range of issues internally, mainly corporate work, regulatory issues and the commercial matters that involve the PERU LNG Project. This is in addition to the legal issues that arise in the day-to-day work of the company. We also provide legal support in communication and the relationship with government authorities in Peru, as necessary. We enlist external advice on major claims, large contracts or other big cases that might require specialised advice from recognised law firms.
What do you consider to be your most important role as in-house counsel? And how is life as an in-house counsel different from that of a private practitioner?
I believe that the most important role as in-house counsel is to understand the specifics of the company’s business. In my opinion the difference between a private practitioner and an in-house lawyer is that as the latter takes an active role in the company’s business, for that reason he or she has a better understanding of the company’s needs.
Tell us about recent special projects keeping your team busy?
Since starting at the company, one of the main projects that has occupied us has been to provide the entire legal support towards aiding the completion of the construction phase of the project and to enable the plant to begin its commercial operation. PERU LNG’s project has been one of the biggest investments in Peru. With regard to specific special matters in the legal department, our team is currently busy trying to develop tools that might help other areas of the company to understand that legal advice is crucial for any business decision.
What law firms did you hire? What were the main challenges?
My preference is to look for a particular legal expert rather than a specific law firm. We strongly recommend the following law firms: i) Estudio Echecopar for its litigation and administrative expertise, ii) Estudio Galvez on the corporate and regulatory issues, iii) Estudio Pizarro Botto & Escobar for litigation and iv) Estudio Muñiz for environmental matters.
Estudio Echecopar is a well-recognized law firm that has advised our company in administrative and regulatory proceedings, while Estudio Pizarro Botto & Escobar have served our company in several civil and judicial proceedings. Estudio Galvez and Estudio Muñiz have provided excellent support on specialised matters. One of the main tasks of our external legal advisors is to defend the company’s best interests.
With regard to international law firms, we have worked with Baker Botts in relation to commercial and arbitration issues and with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in relation to financing matters.
What skills do you require in external counsel to address these challenges?
First, the external counsel should be client-oriented. Secondly, we consider it important for our external counsel to address challenges with honesty, integrity and dedication. Finally, it is important that our advisors are always available in order to discuss the needs and concerns that our legal team may have.
Do you always tend to work with the same firms?
As previously mentioned, we mainly look for expertise within the different law firms in the market. What interests us primarily is that the law firm offers a personalised service. Notwithstanding, we are always open to new proposals.
When dealing outside your home jurisdiction, how do you find counsel?
We mainly rely upon our shareholders contacts (in the US, Japan, Korea and Spain) and referrals from the law firms with which we are already working.
Do you see yourself hiring the firm primarily, or the individual?
In my opinion the reputation and experience of a law firm is important but this is only the front cover, so to speak. It is what is within, namely, the dedication, professionalism, expertise and hard work of the individuals that keep clients satisfied.
What measures do you use to control or monitor fees?
We constantly monitor the amount spent in legal fees with our approved budget. Also, we keep well informed of the market value of legal services to prevent overbilling.
Is the role of the in-house lawyer changing?
The role of an in-house lawyer is constantly changing as it adapts to new market needs. Nowadays, an in-house lawyer needs to be aware of other corporate and commercial business areas such as finance, human resources and administration and health and safety (among others), but mainly, the in-house lawyer needs to understand the company business and provide and administer the necessary legal advice from a management point of view.