In Conversation: Othelia Langner, head of legal and compliance (Southern Africa and SSA), Medtronic

With a career in private practice taking her from South Africa to London, Moscow and Kazakhstan, Langner went in-house at global medical device company, Medtronic. She shares the challenges and rewards of her role.

Othelia Langner is speaking in her personal capacity, and not on behalf of Medtronic.

GC: Can you tell me about your current role and your career journey leading to it?

Othelia Langner (OL): I’m currently responsible for legal and compliance for the Southern African and Sub-Saharan regions.

I followed the ‘standard’ route to qualify as an attorney in South Africa, and then I had the opportunity to join Simmons & Simmons in London. During my time there, I went on secondment to UBS and Renaissance Capital in Moscow, and that is what initially sparked the interest in an in-house environment. My boss in Moscow took up a position as general counsel at a private equity holding company in Almaty in Kazakhstan and he asked me to join him, so I spent some time working there, and I really enjoyed it – it was very, very interesting.

When I was considering my next career move, I was offered the opportunity to come back to South Africa and join the South African office of Fasken, which worked out well because at the time I felt I was just a little bit too junior to go in-house full time. And so I went back into private practice, doing a lot of corporate commercial work in the mining space in South Africa and the rest of the African region, with a little bit in Central Asia.

I spent the next six years or so with Fasken, went through the ranks and made partner. And then Medtronic’s legal counsel resigned and they needed someone on very short notice. I’d just come back from maternity leave and it just aligned. I initially joined on secondment and then never left.

GC: Do you ever miss private practice?

OL: No. I love being in-house. It’s a completely different way of practising law, but – depending on the day! – I love the diversity, the intensity of it. I know in-house lawyers always say this, but you really get to know the business. You don’t practice law in isolation. Actually, the ‘business’ part of it is probably 70% and the strictly legal part maybe 20%. I don’t know what the other 10% is – human nature most likely!

Certainly at Medtronic, it’s a very collegial atmosphere, and I get to  do very interesting work so no, I can’t imagine going back to private practice.

GC: It’s interesting that you dipped your toe into in-house at first, then went back to private practice, and then back in-house.

OL: I was relatively junior (four years PQE) when I was exposed the in-house world. And, actually, it really helped going back into private practice having been in-house. I think all lawyers should ideally do a stint in-house for six months or a year.

GC: In-house skills are never really emphasised throughout law school. Do you think that it takes a certain kind of person to successfully transition in-house, or do you think everyone has it in them, it’s just a case of the right experiences?

OL: Whilst I think all lawyers can benefit from an in-house experience, some personality types may be more suited than others to working in-house. You have lawyers that are very particular about doing things in a very particular way – they want to really interrogate issues – whereas often in the in-house environment you have to make the best decision you can with the information you’ve got, often very quickly in high-pressure situations. You really have to be quite comfortable with assuming responsibility and perhaps (but hopefully not!) making the wrong call. I think the expectation of lawyers in private practice is that they don’t get the luxury of getting it wrong, because they are paid for their time to get it right. And some people are more or less comfortable with that kind of uncertainty and responsibility. I definitely think you can train for it, or at the very least, you can become more comfortable with it.

GC: You mentioned you felt you were perhaps too junior when the opportunity first presented itself to go in-house. When you did join Medtronic, did you feel confident that you were ready, or was there an adjustment period? What was that like?

OL: When I joined Medtronic, I was comfortable that I had the necessary technical skill, but also the gravitas and confidence to really engage with people at a management level.

You really are expected to be a business partner and to advise the business on bringing ideas to fruition and a key component of this is to appropriately manage risk. And when talking about risk, one has to bear in mind that risk can be much broader than, for example, the legal and financial risk that might result from an indemnity clause. It can encompass business risk, reputational risk and the risk of a loss of an opportunity. It would be amazing if you could do everything without any risk but that is not not a reality. And to determine which risks are acceptable, tolerable, given what you’re trying to achieve – I think from that point of view I was very much ready. But it was still a very big adjustment. To go from being able to take the time to really interrogate things to the level of detail you are comfortable with in private practice, to being comfortable with moving quickly – but not negligently or without due consideration – it’s a different dynamic.

GC: You inherited the department at quite short notice. Was it the exact same role to that of your predecessor?

OL: The department existed, and I think we all bring our own approaches to things so we have certainly evolved (not least because of the increasing complexity of the legal and regulatory landscape).

GC: Has the team, or the structure of the team, changed since then?

OL: I wouldn’t say the structure of the team has changed, but I think what we’ve really had to focus on is: with increased demand, how do we deploy the resources we’ve got to effectively address the needs of the business?

In private practice, you’re a revenue generator, whilst in-house you are a cost centre and so, as the business grows, there is often increased pressure on the department but not necessarily additional resources available. Which means you’ve got to look at how you work with those resources.

GC: I imagine that would be a real opportunity for you to develop the management skills that might be a bit less of a focus in private practice, by learning on the job.

OL: I think in private practice, it’s a very different dynamic. It’s much more hierarchical – you’ve got your junior candidate attorneys, your junior and senior, so you manage through the hierarchy. In-house, you’ve got to manage your team, but everyone is kind of semi-autonomous. Stakeholder management is probably the bigger challenge in-house, because you’ve got your team, your local and regional business teams, the regulatory team, the finance team, the quality team, the list goes on, and in a matrix organisation it is important that the right people are kept in the loop.

GC: On the subject of internal stakeholders, is that an ongoing piece of work for you – managing the profile, not just of yourself but also the team as a whole within the business?

OL: Medtronic’s vision includes being recognised as a company of dedication, honesty, integrity, and service, so the legal and compliance function is very highly valued and there’s quite a high degree of visibility and respect. I’ve never found that I’ve had to struggle to be heard because I’ve been able to build close relationships with the businesses I support.

GC: Do you think that’s reflective of the industry, or do you think that comes down to culture of the management of the board?

OL: It is a tough one to answer. I think in highly regulated industries, the importance of legal counsel and compliance counsel is easy to see, because you need someone who can help you navigate that. You can do that with external counsel, but that also involves someone in the business taking responsibility for that process and I think it makes a lot of sense to have that skillset in-house.

So depending on what your business need or goal is, the legal counsel function may play different roles: is it principally to keep you out of trouble? Is it principally to manage contracts? To execute the deals? In my position, it’s a far broader range of risks that we need to consider and manage and so we really are asked to be partners to the business.

GC: Would you say that regulation is the most challenging part of your job?

OL: A criticism that is sometimes levelled at lawmakers is that there may not always be the level of certainty or clarity that industry would want, and so it’s really about trying to navigate that. One way of managing this is to try to understand what the intent is; what the regulators are trying to achieve, and then you try and align with what you consider to be substantial compliance with this intent (rather than looking for loopholes). It can be challenging, but it’s not insurmountable.

GC: Is it difficult to communicate to the internal stakeholders the fact that you can’t give certainties?

OL: I think the thing when communicating with stakeholders is you’ve just got to be clear about the risks that they may be assuming. So you have to form a view. They want to know: can we do this? Should we do this? You can say: ‘Well, having looked at this, this and this, there is a risk that someone can make this argument. If they did make the argument, this is what would happen. We think that this is likely or not likely to happen. Are you comfortable doing this if that could happen? If yes, then that’s a risk we are prepared to assume, so how do we mitigate that? Is there anything else we can do to stop that happening?’

The business may not always have the expertise or the legal knowledge to be able to consider all the possible different structures, so that’s where you really partner with them to understand where they want to get to and how best to achieve it in a legal and compliant manner.

GC: Obviously the industry is highly regulated, but does it change often – are you grappling with new pieces of regulation?

OL: I’d say in the last three years we’ve probably had the biggest changes to the medical device regulations in the history of the industry, not least the amendments to the Medicines Act, which created quite a lot of uncertainty in terms of how they should be interpreted and applied. And when we were afforded the opportunity to provide comments, we made sure we did.

GC: To the regulators?

OL: Yes. For two of the most challenging provisions, operation has been suspended, initially for a year and now for a further three years, while they work through the comments and prepare new drafts.

GC: Would you say that the relationship between companies like yours and the regulators is a positive one – do they take comments like yours on board?

OL: I believe in the value of constructive relationships so it is important to me that when engaging with regulators this is done in a productive way. When it comes to issues that impact the industry as a whole, SAMED also plays a valuable role in escalating matters to the regulator.

GC: As technology advances, I imagine the nature of the products your company is supplying can change quite drastically, and might suddenly involve aspects of, for example, data privacy and cybersecurity, that might not previously have been issues. Do you find the nature of your concerns or priorities shifts as the work that comes across your desk changes?

OL: Indeed, technological advances mean that we need to stay on top of an ever evolving legal landscape too and I have definitely seen an increased focus on matters relating to data privacy and security. So I have had to develop my understanding of these areas, because whilst you can certainly rely on expert advice, you need to know how to work with it on a day-to-day basis.

GC: It seems like it would be difficult, in this industry, to split up the business into jurisdictions based on geography, because of the differences between regulators and what’s allowed in certain countries. Is that the case?

OL: When grouping geographical regions there are usually certain similarities in terms of market dynamics. However, when it comes to specifics on a country level, that’s usually something that would need to be considered on a country-by-country basis. When you are responsible for multiple countries, depending on the nature of the query, you can’t make assumptions that because something is a certain way in one jurisdiction, it is going to be the same in another. You have to ask a lot of questions, and the support and guidance of external counsel in the relevant jurisdictions is key.

GC: Compared to Europe, where there are many countries that are fairly similar, here you have countries right next door to each other that are vastly, vastly different.

OL: And that’s when that comfort with a degree of uncertainty is really important, because in developing markets there may be a disconnect between what the law says and how it is applied on the ground and you need to be able to find a way to work with those dynamics.

GC: Do you ever look at other industries that interest you?

OL: I get to work on really interesting, really complex, really high-level, challenging transactions and, added to that, I get to work for an organisation whose mission – “to alleviate pain, restore health and extend life” – truly resonates with me, so that will be hard to beat!

GC: It must have that added level of satisfaction and motivation.

OL: Our mission was written by our founder, Earl Bakken, and all these years later, we still have the same mission; it still informs how we do business (and I actually have it on the wall in my office). I’m really proud that in my small way I get to contribute to making a difference to patients’ lives. I’m very lucky.

GC: Just lastly, is there anything that you see coming in the next five years, be it specific to your industry, or your job, that you think will affect your role going forward?

OL: I think in-house legal counsel play a very important role in the business. I don’t see that falling away, but I do think that it is going to change, as it already has changed. Where the most complex legal matters used to go to external counsel, I think the breadth and depth of in-house skills and in-house capabilities will continue to be developed and enhanced, so you will really have in-house specialists. If I look at our organisation, the expertise and the quality of our in-house legal and compliance teams is just tremendous.

So yes, I believe that there’s going to be more and more emphasis on in-house legal being an integrated partner to the business and having a high level of technical expertise in-house. And with a lot of organisations facing huge pressures on driving down costs, I think there’s going to be a huge focus on making sure you get the right kind of candidate in the role so that they can execute effectively across a whole range of needs.

When it comes to technology, I’m interested to see how reliance on AI will evolve. At the moment, it would seem like more of a  possible concern to those in private practice, where there’s a lot more of the commoditised work. But, honestly, in the in-house environment, no two days are the same – so it will be a long time before AI can catch up.

That said, when it comes to adopting new technologies in the in-house environment, this too will continue to advance and will require us to constantly consider how we are doing what we do and whether there are tools that can enhance the value we provide. I believe that if we remember to regularly reflect on where we are and to challenge assumptions about how we have worked in the past, then I think we can, and will, evolve.