Who’s Who Legal interviews Jeffrey Goh, the general counsel of one of the world’s foremost airline groups, Star Alliance Services. He discusses his in-house legal career and the German aviation industry.
Role: General counsel and vice president of corporate services
Company: Star Alliance Services GmbH
Number of employees: 72 full-time equivalents
Preferred law firms: Latham & Watkins LLP, Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Urwantschky Dangel Borst & Partner
The largest and longest-established of the world’s three leading airline alliances, Star Alliance was founded in 1997 by Air Canada, United Airlines, Lufthansa, Scandinavian Airlines and Thai Airways International. In 2001, the company established its headquarters in Frankfurt, offering a geographically central and economically stable hub from which to support the 27 airlines across the globe that it currently counts as members.
Following a career in academia, time spent in-house at IATA, and work in private practice at Beaumont & Son (alongside Who’s Who Legal aviation lawyer of the year John Balfour), Jeffrey Goh joined Star Alliance as general counsel in 2007. Following company restructurings that year, in addition to his legal role he also acts as vice president of corporate services at the company, giving him responsibility for human resources, strategic sourcing and fuel-related projects. And it is this integration of the legal department into the broader strategy of the company, utilising his extensive expertise of aviation regulation and competition, that gives Goh the greatest job satisfaction.
“Antitrust compliance is one of the biggest challenges we face,” he says “there is an ever stronger regulatory focus from competition authorities and we have to remain ultra careful.” Achieving comprehensive regulatory compliance is further complicated when a company, like Star Alliance, employs staff of more than 25 different nationalities across the world. “On the one hand, airlines join the alliance to benefit from the cost savings and unified support we can offer, such as IT infrastructure, joint procurement and co-location in airports,” Goh notes “but the airlines themselves remain competitors and each has its own ethos and cultural needs.”
Further challenges have emerged in recent months, both for the aviation industry and for the broader European economic climate. At the time of writing, headlines pertaining to the G20 meeting in Cannes are being dominated by the ongoing sovereign debt crisis in Europe and speculations over the future security of the euro and the stability of major European powers such as Germany. This follows a “tough year” for the aviation industry in Europe, with a slump in forward bookings at numerous major airlines, poor quarterly figures for Star Alliance founding member Lufthansa and, more recently, the resignation of CEO Pierre-Henri Gourgeon from French flag carrier Air France after a first quarter net loss of €197 million.
Nevertheless, Goh is confident in the staying power both of the sector and of Germany: “despite everything, the German economy remains robust and as long as people need to travel we will see a demand for aviation.” In recognition of this demand competition in the sector is becoming fiercer, with airlines from the Gulf states in particular becoming more established in the global market and diluting the yield of older carriers. Star Alliance appears well placed to reap the benefits of this increasing diversity, with numerous non-member airlines showing an interest in joining the alliance over the past year, potentially opening up such growth markets as India, China, Russia and the Middle East. “Despite the challenges, Germany will remain a major hub of the global aviation sector,” adds Goh “and as the alliance grows so too will the importance of the quality of service the legal department provides.”
Where were you previously employed?
The University of Sheffield (UK), Beaumont and Son, International Air Transport Association.
How big is Star Alliance’s legal department?
Three full-time equivalents.
What percentage of your work is performed by in-house lawyers?
75 per cent.
What are the advantages of doing work in-house?
In-house work remains more cost-effective than outsourcing, and the instant familiarity that an in-house team has with the specific aims of the business and its organisation is invaluable. The board has direct access to comprehensive legal advice.
How is life as an in-house counsel different from that of a private practitioner?
You are able to gain a more intimate knowledge of the business and its organisation as an integral contributor to company strategy.
What qualities make a good in-house lawyer?
Good in-house lawyers have the business acumen necessary to go beyond technical legal analysis towards a more integrated strategic approach that adds value to the company.
Is the role of the in-house lawyer changing eg, becoming more specialised?
This really depends on the organisation. Smaller companies tend to be more generalised with support from external counsel on specialised subjects, whereas larger legal departments have the capacity to offer advice at all levels.
What qualities make a good private practice lawyer?
The best private practice lawyers appreciate and support what it is their clients’ businesses are trying to achieve through their work, and are able to cut to the chase and make an active contribution to these goals.
When will you enlist the advice of external advisers?
When we encounter highly specialised legal issues outside our home jurisdiction or when the workload of our in-house team is prohibitively high.
Do you see yourself hiring the firm primarily, or the individual?
I see myself as primarily hiring the individual, as it is through these personal relationships that external counsel develop a better familiarity with the business, the organisation and our aims.
Do you have a regular external corporate firm?
We have a list of external corporate firms in numerous different jurisdictions owing to the international character of the company.
When dealing outside your home jurisdiction, how do you find counsel?
We take recommendations from the legal teams of the alliance’s member airlines and also receive recommendations from fellow counsel in our home jurisdiction.
What common behaviour from an external adviser or their firm do you find least acceptable?
External advisers have chased us in order to gain more work, and I find this an unproductive way to conduct a relationship.
What makes Germany “a good place to do business” in 2012?
The German economy continues to grow at a fast rate despite the wider economic uncertainty in Europe. The most obvious obstacle at the moment is the way in which companies can be hamstrung by over-friendly labour laws.