Made in (the) America(s)

In the first partnership between GC magazine and Akerman, at the US-Latin America Legal Summit 2019, we spoke to leading industry counsel to distil both the challenges and opportunities of being a US-domiciled counsel responsible for Latin America.

Latin America can be notoriously challenging for business. Volatile politics and economics teamed with concerning corruption levels in some areas, alongside a more stable picture in others, conspire to create a complex and nuanced regional environment – which keeps those in the role of regional counsel on their toes.

Ines Bahachille, associate general counsel for Latin America at US IT company Ingram Micro, put a Sinatra-flavoured twist on her feelings about the region’s difficulties: ‘If I can make it in Latin America, I’ll make it anywhere!’

But the flipside is that having responsibility for markets as diverse as Mexico, Brazil, the South Cone, the infamous Venezuela, and others, can craft a unique set of skills for those tasked with legal responsibility at global organisations.

‘It makes you able to manage the element of surprise easily, to resolve complex situations with fast decision-making without panicking, and to see things in the proper context without the need to cause unnecessary alarm. It makes one lead by example, to inspire others to operate in a culture of integrity and to also demonstrate that local operations can actually influence the country positively,’ Bahachille explains.

‘It is important to vigilantly develop as deep a familiarity as possible with the legal frameworks and key local laws affecting the industry, but it is even more important to know what you don’t know, to have the judgement to know when it is necessary to call upon trusted local counsel and to be prepared to make adjustments to accommodate local differences when needed,’ adds Casey Furman, legal director, Latin America and Caribbean at Verifone.

Regional counsel have the opportunity to add value to the business in unique and highly visible ways, be that applying a creative approach to investments that a global company can make in local markets, or lobbying to positively impact the footprint of the industry more broadly.

‘Governments change, laws change and obviously we have to be very proactive and understand the impact that these changes may have on the business side. Our industry is evolving constantly in technology and we look to work through associations to lobby and educate both the regulators and the governments, as well as to understand the industry while at the same time ensuring that these regulations don’t have a negative impact on the business side,’ says Larissa Zagustin, general counsel for International Media Networks Americas at Viacom.

‘We’ve had many cases where there have been regulatory changes that have helped increase revenues, so the business teams have felt a direct impact from our efforts because it’s basically allowing what used to be more restrictive to be more flexible, where the business teams can now generate more revenues.’

Latin America has opportunities for growth that lend it enduring appeal for investors looking to scale in the region, meaning that global corporates continue to play an important role, despite operational challenges in some jurisdictions.

The question arises whether having legal leadership on the ground is necessary.

Viacom has been busy creating new business lines and building strategic partnerships, expanding both in scale and reach. An example is the launch of Miami-based Viacom International Studio, illustrating Viacom’s ambitions to grow its content creation across the region, producing content for its own platforms, as well as for third parties like Netflix and Amazon. The company also has a joint venture in Brazil, and acquired Argentinian television station Telefe in 2016.

‘The formats generated in Brazil and Argentina have amazing potential outside of those specific countries, so we’ve been looking to grow, take that intellectual property and expand it. Viacom International Studio is looking how to tweak these formats and export them around the world. So it starts locally, but the formats have been successful enough that we’ve been able to take them to other parts of the world where they create their own version,’ says Zagustin.

‘We’re not just getting a pipeline of content from Viacom centrally, we’re creating our own content within the regions within our division. We are also establishing great strategic partnerships with third parties and that’s where it has been a great opportunity for my whole team to engage in business strategies that are not the typical way of producing content.’

As in other regions, being a flexible and creative business partner is the universal key to demonstrating value to the business – while, of course, keeping a firm steer on the ethical and compliance elements.

‘New issues, some foreseeable and others not, arise regularly, and solving them takes forthright communication and collaboration with the executive team. Getting to that place of communicating effectively and solving problems collaboratively is about gaining trust. It is also crucial to have a strong commercial acumen. As legal counsellors, we need to keep in mind that we are here to be solutions-oriented and to make business goals happen. When executives know that you have that mindset, it makes collaboration and communication much easier,’ says Furman.

But having that unique dual vantage point of both a legal and business lens can be especially useful in Latin America.

‘We have to recognise that some situations are non-typical or “non-common sense” sometimes, and that is when the set of skills of a counsel in charge of this region becomes very relevant,’ says Bahachille.

‘Once you gain the trust of the business, it is important not to overthink and just be truthful and authentic about the challenges and potential solutions. The key is to always keep in mind that we work for a company and not for specific individuals.’

Like elsewhere, the progression of in-house counsel to a position of business partner in Latin America has been most pronounced over the past decade.

‘Nowadays the general counsel is sitting at the table with the business and engaged and involved from the start of any type of strategic goals for the company. I would definitely think that the evolution in the past 10 years has gone in the direction where my team and myself have been high contributors to the business side. And when you’re engaging outside counsel in the region, they’ve also gone in a direction of still acting as lawyers but being also more business-friendly,’ explains Zagustin.

With both Bahachille, Zagustin and Furman all based not in Latin America itself, but in Miami, the question arises whether having legal leadership on the ground is necessary. But Bahachille, dual-licensed in New York and Venezuela, and responsible for a 13-strong team of people based in the US, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Colombia, Argentina and other Latin American countries, thinks not:

‘We are a global world and technology allows everyone to see what happens around it. I report directly to the global general counsel, and at the same time I am very close to the senior business leaders on different levels. Encouraging regional initiatives is always positive – trying to leverage learnings across markets and influencing the team to work together as one,’ she explains.

Furman agrees that technology is a boon: ‘We use systems to track the status and progress of projects, manage litigation and oversee external counsel spend. We are also implementing a new contract management system that will help us to better collaborate among our legal team situated across the globe and to service our business users.’

Among the most pivotal roles that a regional counsel can play is that of applying specialist local knowledge and judgement to connecting the dots between the region and the global business.

Says Bahachille: ‘The beauty of being an in-house counsel is that we see the whole picture – and if we are not in that place, we have to learn how to do it. Being a regional counsel is a complex and yet a fun role, as long as we enjoy what we do and we are not afraid of standing up for what is right and trying to grow the business at the same time.’