Navigating the Ice Fields
By legalthing on Oct 30, 2006
I'm frequently asked what skills are necessary to be a successful in-house attorney at a public and global company like Sun. My stock response is that you need be a good business partner and attorney (obvious), have a heavy dependency on caffeine and the ability to channel "Clint" during stressful situations. But, I'm increasingly becoming convinced that people who do this for a living would be well suited for a role in my organization.
Let me explain what I mean. Sun, although based in the U.S., does business in over 100 countries. And, we are obligated to comply with the laws of each of these. At first glance, one would think that this is primarily a resourcing issue – do you have enough legal support to understand the laws of each jurisdiction and put in place processes to comply? Increasingly, however, the difficulty is that some of these laws may be in conflict and navigating between them can prove challenging. Here are a couple of examples.
Since 1962, the U.S. has had legislation in place that, among other things, prohibits U.S. based companies from trading with Cuba. In order to comply, most U.S. companies have developed procedures and infrastructure to ensure that their products are not sold into Cuba.
Canada, has taken a different view. In response to the U.S. legislation, the governnment of Canada has enacted laws that make it an offense for Canadian corporations to comply with the U.S. legislation. The difficulty is that these laws appear to also apply to Canadian subsidiaries that are wholly-owned by U.S. companies.
Here's another example. To comply with Sarbanes-Oxley, almost all U.S. based public companies have put in place anonymous reporting hot lines. Given that most employees in the U.S. are employed on an "at-will" basis and would have concerns about retribution for "whistle blowing", anonymity makes sense. However, this is not the same situation elsewhere. In many countries, employees have greater job protection. And, in some, there is a cultural legacy that runs counter to anonymous reporting. In France and Germany, for example, many citizens still have painful memories of experiences resulting from their inability to confront unknown accusers during WWII and in East Germany. As a result, the European Union has enacted legislation that restricts the ability of companies wanting to implement anonymous reporting as part of compliance programs.
Given the accelerating growth of the Internet as a global engine for the exchange of commerce, information and culture, we will increasingly see instances where laws are in conflict. This will lead to even more opportunity for in-house counsel to demonstrate their “navigational” skills.