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Karin Sinniger is assistant general counsel for Asia Pacific, India and Southern Africa at BP Africa, and is currently based in Angola, where she has been a key driver behind the development of the legal team on the ground. In 2013 she also set the world record for scuba diving in the most number of countries. Catherine Wycherley catches up with her to chat about scuba diving and life as a GC in Angola before she leaves the country for a new posting abroad.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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GC: How long have you been scuba diving?

Karin Sinniger (KS): I’m from Switzerland, but I was born and raised in Asia. When we lived in the Philippines, we used to have a beach house. I was just fascinated by the sea – my parents had to drag me out of the water. I wanted to be a fish when I grew up! Diving was the closest way of achieving that goal. I always wanted to learn how to dive. But learning to dive in the 1970s was a long, drawn-out affair. It was expensive, and my parents didn’t want to take time out of summer holidays for me to be away from the family that long. When I eventually graduated from law school, my first job was with a law firm on Wall Street in New York. Then I had money, but I didn’t have the time! Fortunately, New York being New York, there was a dive school that offered classes from 11 at night til 1 in the morning - you could learn to dive for 99 bucks, so that’s what I did. And I just got hooked. I set the world record for scuba diving in the most countries two years ago (diving with an elephant in the Andaman Islands was the 125th country), and I’ve now dived in 140 countries.

GC: And you’re going to be diving in Antarctica soon?

KS: We’re actually going to sub-Antarctica - to Bouvet Island, which is probably the most remote place on Earth. You first go to Ushuaia, Argentina - the end of the world and it’s the launching point for ships going to Antarctica and sub-Antarctica. I’ve dived in Argentina once before about five years ago. I was a member of the UK-based Nautical Archaeological Society which ran an expedition to help Argentinian archaeologists map an 18th century English ship that went down off the coast of Patagonia. From Ushuaia, we travel through ice to Bouvet and then up towards St Helena and Ascension Islands where I´ve lined up some dives. From there we´ll fly to the UK on an RAF plane before flying back home to Angola.

GC: How do you prepare for diving somewhere like Antarctica? Presumably that’s going to be physically quite gruelling?

KS: Antarctica is very challenging. Optimal diving is between November and February. To prepare for something like that you need to train in cold water, and then you need special equipment because these waters are the coldest in the world, -1◦C. Your regulator freezes because your breath is warm and it’s going into really cold water, and so it will get an ice plug in it if you don’t have it specially treated and environmentally sealed. It’s so cold that you have ice particles in the water. If you use plastic fins they’ll snap, so you need to use rubber fins. You can’t stay in the water much longer than 20 minutes because you’ll freeze. And then when you come out of the water, you need to make sure that the wind and cold don’t lead to exposure.

When you go under the ice you’re tethered, which means that you are connected by rope to someone on the surface. Obviously if you can’t find the hole through which you entered the water to re-surface from, then you die. When you’re getting ready to come up, a fun thing to do (pre-arranged of course!) is to give the emergency signal. This is three strong yanks on the cord. And then the person on the surface just hauls you in like crazy. You put your feet up against the ice, so you’re upside down, and you basically go skiing across the ice. The ice - contrary to popular opinion - is not smooth, it’s actually pretty bumpy, like you’re on a really fast ski slope ride.

GC: How did your career as a lawyer come about? Is it something that you always wanted to do?

KS: My father was a businessman and was always very impressed with how lawyers thought through issues. Like a lot of parents, he hoped I’d follow him in a business career. But he said, “first, go to law school because the way you think will be so much better if you do that.” I took that advice but never left the law. I had the opportunity to do internships doing different things in varied industries in many different countries, and I practiced my language skills at the same time. As a result of doing that, I came to the conclusion that I was very comfortable with lawyers and dealing with legal issues. It was a good career choice for me. During my nearly twenty year career at BP I’ve had a couple of opportunities to move to the business side, but I´ve turned them down.

GC: What was it that made you go in-house?
KS: The law firm life, particularly in New York, is extremely gruelling. It’s an excellent, excellent education, it’s very professional, they teach you how to work, they test you to the end of your mettle in terms of your ability to act under pressure and without sleep. But I would see partners in their fifties and sixties in closings with me at three o’clock in the morning, and I didn´t think that I’d want that life at their age. I worked at a law firm that was right around the corner from Broadway theatres in New York, but if I made reservations to go to the theatre at 7.30pm and the show started at 8pm, I would not know whether I could go, because something could come through the door. Some clients were so demanding, they thought that if the lawyers on their deals had time for a haircut they weren’t spending enough time working on their stuff, and so we were banned from taking haircuts for three months at a time. Between September and the end of the year is traditionally the busiest time for corporate lawyers because everyone wants to get their deals done by year end for tax reasons-- so we would be banned from taking time off at Christmas.

I work really long hours in-house - there’s no shortcuts to success: if you want to achieve you’ve got to put in the time - but what’s different is that psychologically I know that it’s what I want to do, and it’s not really what I need to do, or what is expected. If I went to my boss and said, “listen, this deal is taking an extreme amount of time, we need to get outside counsel involved,” the resources would be made available to do that, or internal resources would be made available to help me so I was not having to continuously put in those kinds of hours. I have freedom over how I balance my workload. That is a huge difference with being in-house, and something which I really value.

Plus you get a chance to be involved on the management side, to learn more about the business and learn different types of skills along the way as a result. If I’d stayed at a law firm I would not have had the opportunity to develop a national team here which I’m so proud of. So it’s very, very rewarding.

GC: Tell me a little bit about building up the team in Angola. How did you end up getting placed there?

KS: I was working in Azerbaijan; I worked there for three years on the BTC pipeline [the Baku-Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline running from the Caspian to the Mediterranean sea]. At the end of that assignment they needed a legal manager to go into Angola. Nobody else wanted to go into Angola - it was a country that had come out of a nearly 30-year civil war. Still today everything is imported, it’s very expensive, there’s no theatres, no taxis, you’ve got to organise a car to go everywhere, you’re very restricted in your freedoms. So it’s not for everyone. But the advantages are that through your skills you can really help a country build itself up, which is extremely rewarding, and you can help people build themselves up.

I thought, ok, in order to have an Angolan legal manager here in X years, we need to have a couple of people in the pipeline with these and these skills. And in order for them to get those skills, what do we need to do? I worked backward from where I wanted to be and step by step moved forward.

We were on a limited budget, so I encouraged all my team to apply for scholarships, the Fulbright scholarship and the Humphrey H. Humphrey fellowship. We helped them with the application forms, had mock interviews, and they did very well. Two of my lawyers got sent over as Humphrey scholars to do an LLM in the States. That was very beneficial to them, and very helpful in improving their English. There are no teachers of English as a foreign language here, so we had to arrange for tutors in South Africa to teach them via Skype so that they could pass their English language test, to get into the universities. We sent one lawyer to the UK for two years on a developmental assignment, which was very helpful to her development. My successor will have spent two years outside of Legal as BP Angola’s president’s executive assistant. In that role, he will have seen many things on the business side which will be helpful to him in managing our legal function in Angola. Obviously it’s inconvenient when you lose a member of your team to going overseas to study or to join a different team, but you’ve got to be somebody who’s got the broader outlook. I think selfless is the word. It’s being generous of spirit, being creative, delegating generously and getting out of the limelight and letting others shine.

GC: How difficult was recruitment in Angola?

KS: You’re dealing with a very finite resource pool. There’s nobody with oil and gas experience, it just doesn’t exist, so you’ve got to start from scratch - you’re starting with very young lawyers just out of law school with no experience. We devised our own legal reasoning tests because we want to be sure those lawyers we hire have the ability to do legal analysis. In jurisdictions like Angola and Azerbaijan, they don’t teach lawyers to analyse and issue spot – it’s all rote learning. It difficult to teach somebody that skill in any event- they either have it or they don’t.

We started with that base and then gradually as we got more established and involved in more projects, we started hiring people from law firms. Another expat on my team managed to persuade the management here that we could partner with a local law school and run an LLM programme – so the first LLM programme in Africa is in Angola. BP set that up and brought the tutors in from overseas, and partnered with a law school, and it’s now been running for about seven years. It’s now evolved into a combined LLM/MBA programme. As a result of that programme we saw students in action and invited them to join us, and the Angolan lawyers could see that BP was really committed to giving good career opportunities. So we ended up being able to recruit some really, really good people.

GC: What are the things that you most enjoy or find satisfying about working for BP Africa?

KS: Being told that I’ve changed people’s lives and being able to see that the skyline is changing daily as a result of the money we’re delivering into the country. People have this idea that oil companies are very rapacious but if they actually could see the amount of social investment we do in the areas of education, health, or safe driving campaigns. For example, the education system here is not very good but we need engineers, so we send people to South Africa to learn English, we send people to Turkey to get an engineering qualification. We don’t know at the end of it if we’ll have a need for those individuals, and if we don’t, it’s an engineer that’s being delivered into Angola who can work for someone else - it’s not just about developing our staff. It’s really, really rewarding to see that from the ground up; you wouldn’t have that opportunity if you were in a developed market. And also people here are so grateful for opportunities and there’s no sense of entitlement like people often have in the US or the UK.

We’ve also had people who were IT technicians working for us as team assistants. They went to law school at night. If they were good we’d give them some paralegal tasks. If they did those well, we eventually made them lawyers. That breeds a lot of loyalty because we’ve taken a chance on people. Rather than going externally and getting experienced people, we hire people with no legal experience and train them ourselves. It takes a lot of time to do that, but that’s very rewarding as well.

People here are so grateful for opportunities that you give them. Luanda has been ranked as the most expensive city on earth for the eight years I´ve been here. People can’t afford to live in the city centre and so the commute is horrific. You have to get up at four in the morning to leave your home by five, in order not to sit in traffic for three hours. So people are having a three to four-hour (sometimes worse) commute every day. Just imagine at the end of your day, having gotten up at four, going to law school on top of that, then getting home at eleven or midnight and you’ve got to do homework as well. And you’re doing that for years. People are just very, very grateful for opportunities and hungry to learn and it’s just wonderful to be able to help people like that.

GC: What are the challenges of working in that kind of environment? Is it infrastructure, or are there other challenges to be faced in somewhere like Angola?

KS: There are of course infrastructure issues like the ones that I have mentioned. It is a hard posting, but in terms of legal issues it’s absolutely fascinating. You can see for yourself where Angola is on the transparency index, and that’s a real challenge – how to do business here without being in breach of our ethical code, and the relevant anticorruption laws.  That’s one challenge. And then the other challenge is that you’re in an environment where the laws are not well-developed, and there are new laws coming into effect all the time which are not well-articulated. If you’re the kind of lawyer that needs a lot of structure and clarity you’ll have a hard time operating here. They have a saying in Brazil which is also applicable here: “Yeah, that law is on the books but it hasn’t really caught on.” So that’s a challenge. Now of course, in a low oil price environment, the government is trying to do everything to get more money: passing new taxes, changing new laws, increasing environmental fines, and all sorts of things. So no day is the same, and it’s always challenging. That’s great.

GC: Has there been one particular highlight of your career so far?

KS: Being able to work on something like the BTC pipeline – it is the largest private infrastructure project in the world. The US even had an energy ambassador to that pipeline project. You’re really seeing geo-global politics on a grand stage. Being part of developing a country like Angola, that’s a unique opportunity as well, and then to develop a team where you’re really making a difference in people’s lives, that’s another highlight.

GC: You mentioned that things are always changing in Angola, but what are the legal challenges or issues that you predict will come up in the next few months?

KS: Right now (and we’re foreseeing this for the next couple of years), it is the low oil price environment.

GC: Will you be sad to leave Angola behind?

KS: Of course! I’ve put a lot of myself into this country. It’s been very good to me, and the people have been wonderful, and I will be sad. But a part of Angola has also become a part of me for good.

GC: If you could go back in time and give your more junior self some career advice, what would that be? What are the things that you’ve learnt that could have helped you if you’d learnt them sooner?

KS: To study what you like. I was at Oxford in the early ’80s and I really did not enjoy studying law, to the point where I thought that after one term I would switch and study history. I wish I’d done that. But in those days, it was very much the case that if you didn´t graduate with a law degree, the prestigious law firms and barristers wouldn’t view you as serious if you just did a one year conversion course. You weren’t viewed as seriously as someone who knew they wanted to practice law and spent three years studying it. Today, the majority of lawyers hired by the top law firms in the UK have not studied law but done a one year legal conversion course. I should have done what my heart told me.

The other thing is: don’t be afraid to take career breaks. I took a six-month career break a couple of years before I turned 40 because there was some difficult technical diving I wanted to do - the risk of decompression sickness goes up when you age. So it was a unique window to do that type of diving. I have to say, I agonised over that. It was like: “Are you going to be considered a flake, are you going to be taken seriously after doing this?” But as long as you do something interesting with your time off and don´t sit at home watching TV, you´ll be okay.

GC: If for some reason you weren’t a lawyer any more, what would you do instead as your alternative career? Would you move into diving professionally?

KS: I enjoy diving, but I don’t enjoy teaching diving to recreational divers. I have a dive master qualification, but don’t think I’d go into a dive career. Obviously, I have an interest in the sea so I’m involved with an award-wining UK charity called Blue Ventures that teaches volunteers to do coral reef monitoring. It also teaches the local fishing communities self-sustaining fishing practices.

I’m also very passionate about investing, especially increasing the knowledge about how to budget and invest for women, so I would be keen to further that interest.

Finally, I’ve become very interested in health and nutrition. I’m considering going into the camel farming business because camel’s milk is so healthy. There are a few wild camels roaming loose on the South African-Namibian border that I have my eye to lasso!