I have been a lawyer for 24 years, originally specialising in tax law. I became an in-house lawyer by chance. I began my corporate career as legal manager for Central America and the Caribbean at British American Tobacco. It was an incredible experience, but one day I received an offer I could not turn down. So, I went to work for Colgate-Palmolive. This is a really interesting company that deals with consumer goods and products that focus on oral health, personal care and home care. We also have a division that manufactures and sells pet food. It is a very diverse and interesting company.
I manage six countries: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. I oversee all the legal issues including tax, environmental law, government relations and advertising law. One of the most important things that has set Central America apart from the rest of the world when it comes to COVID-19 is the implementation of curfews. We have been under lockdown and had strict controls placed on our movements over the last five months.
Despite this, Colgate-Palmolive has not had to shut down its operations. We sell our products throughout Central America, Dominican Republic, some parts of Europe, Mexico and the United States. We have not stopped even for one day. The goods we sell have been considered essential by every government in the region. Ensuring our people are able to do their job in a safe manner has been key. While this work has involved many departments, the legal team has made sure everything is done in a fully legal and compliant way.
The truth is, in-house legal work is usually done behind the scenes. I am fine with that, [because it] means when we do our work in the best way, everything goes smoothly. For example, in order for our employees to travel during curfew times we had to apply for special legal permits. In the end, nobody raised any issues. This means we did our job well.
This is a consumer goods company, it is a company whose main area of focus is to manufacture, sell and market products. We as legal are a support function, and our main goal is to operate in such a way that people do not know what we are doing behind the scenes. [Our lack of visibility] is a measure that the legal function, not only in Central America but worldwide is working effectively. Colgate-Palmolive has done a terrific job as we continue to manufacture and sell products safely.
Another, major change in my role is I am working from home all day. Apart from a quick visit into the office, I have not seen my leadership and management team for the past five months. This means we have had to change how we deal with everyday issues. Previously, I would spend some time of the year in each country, making at least two visits per country a year. If something was urgent I would just hop on to a plane. These days I have to handle everything over the telephone or over a computer screen.
One of the biggest challenges during this pandemic has been brand protection, and I believe we have been doing a great job. We pursue and take action against imitation of products, counterfeiting and smuggling of products that do not conform to our requirements. During this pandemic, right from the beginning, we have had to deal with people trying to sell products and mislead consumers into believing products are from our company, when they are not. In the past, we would send our brand protection team, comprised of lawyers and private investigations to looking into to these kinds of issues. We would run an investigation, submit a case for breach of intellectual property and prosecute the case. As many of the countries in our regional cluster are now closed we have had to come up with creative ideas to deal with such issues. For example, gel alcohol (sanitizer) which is advertised using one of our brands on Facebook marketplace, is not a product we manufactured. We let Facebook know the product is not ours, and they need to shut the account down. We also sent a cease and desist letter [to the manufacturer of this product].
We have had to find a lot of creative ways to protect the company’s trademark, as well as protecting consumer rights. In the past, we would go into a street and look for the product, collect samples and just gather as much information as possible to prosecute those cases. Now, we have had to be more creative, and find other ways to have the product removed from the market without us involving private investigators.
My personal opinion is that we have managed our resources very efficiently. We can respond to matters effectively, whether we are sitting in an office or at our homes, and provide the same results. I believe the legal profession will become more flexible as we look for smart and creative solutions, whilst respecting the processes of the law. The reason people are hesitant to approach lawyers is that we can sometimes take too long to address issues.
Overall, we as lawyers want the legal profession to advance. When I was at school, there was a philosophical discussion regarding the law and whether the legal profession was a science or just a body of dead knowledge that continued to follow the same statutes and cases over and over again. This pandemic has made us stop for a moment to take a look at our profession from a scientific standpoint. As in-house lawyers we have to reinvent ourselves, and find alternative answers to make things easier. The law can evolve, and the legal profession can evolve just as other sciences do.