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Building an In-House Team to Be Proud Of

CEEIHM Issue 1.1.
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How do you go about building an in-house legal team that you can be proud of – one that addresses all the needs of a publicly-traded company, and does so with minimal external advisory assistance? Marian Radu, Group Legal & Public Affairs Manager at Vrancart Group, explains.

CEEIHM: To start, share a bit about your career and current employer.

Marian: Leaving aside my personal perception, I think many can relate to this career pattern: laying brick after brick with hard work and a bit of luck when needed. I started as a junior some 18 years ago, in a very large and diversified group from business and legal points of view. I was very lucky to be exposed from the start to all kinds of various challenges, even if, at times, I felt literally thrown into a lions’ pit. Learning lesson after lesson – even the hard way – means growth, both professionally and personally, which, in time, made me realize that, beside impetus and instinct, there are other aspects, subtler, sometimes even esoteric, that ultimately drive us.

And so my current mindset, relating to how one controls and directs one’s energy and thoughts, began to be all the more relevant in today’s context. Basically, it comes down to what you send out to the Universe. And positive thinking attracts positive context. And, as I aligned myself with this newly discovered paradigm, I became aware of the multiple ladders that laid hidden and I started climbing them.

My current employer, Vrancart Group, is the largest waste paper collector in Romania and one of the leading players in the region in terms of paper, corrugated cardboard, and tissue papers. The parent company of the group has been listed on the Bucharest Stock Exchange for 15 years now and that is an aspect that speaks for itself.

CEEIHM: What are the main areas that keep you busy – what takes up most of your time? What about your legal team as a whole?

Marian: I am very mobile. I travel a lot because operating at a country level requires it. This implies a certain degree of coordination with my team, which is entirely located at our headquarters, but I am lucky enough to have all the colleagues doing their daily routine without me micro-managing, which I generally don’t do because it cuts deep into one’s feeling of professional fulfillment and self-esteem, not mention literally killing your time. Instead, I supervise all activity – I know what everyone is doing – but I intervene only where and when necessary. And that allows me to focus more on the strategic legal and business matters of the group and on the alignment with the other members of the top management team. As I already mentioned, the parent company is listed on the Bucharest Stock Exchange, from which it derives a fair number of legal constraints and a constant interaction with the relevant authorities. And the legislation in this field is both very strict and relatively technical, with many aspects that require a heightened level of attention. The good part is that, once you master these aspects, you will see that their constant application is in fact a very good control key for the activities carried out, in terms of punctuality, transparency, and correctness of the company’s legal, statutory, and business processes. Alongside that there is the usual legal stuff that you encounter in all large groups, like keeping up with the relevant legal framework, providing support to various departments – litigation, compliance, corporate governance, data protection, labor issues, and so on and so forth.

CEEIHM: Since you mentioned your non-micro-management-needing team, how large is it and how is it structured?

Marian: We are now a team of four. It is not a large team in terms of numbers, but it is a very dedicated one. And that feature enables us to effectively tend to the legal needs of the group while maintaining almost all the activities in-house. Due to the complexity of the sales structures of the group, one colleague deals almost exclusively with that part – pretty much everything related to contracts, clients, receivables, financial guarantees, and other aspects in this commercial area. It is somehow a hybrid assignment, most of it legal but with a consistent business component as well. The usual daily routine is covered by another colleague, who I take pride in having recruited because she started as a junior and exceeded our expectations thanks to a good mix of the right attitude and eagerness to help and learn new things. More delicate and substantial matters, including litigation, statutory issues, and issues related to the capital markets field are discussed with, and usually assigned to, the third colleague, an all-rounder veteran member of the team, who has been in the group for more than 20 years.

CEEIHM: What are you proudest of when it comes to your team?

Marian: What I most enjoy is that in the last two years we have managed to harmonize youth with experience, to enhance the helping spirit and, even by joking and laughing a lot, to create a working environment that is both pleasant and efficient. Last but not least, there is another aspect that defines our approach of office life – it might not be the most relevant but I feel it is worth mentioning: We have completely redesigned the office, according to our vision and desires. We now have a lot of flowers and small trees – everything is green and relaxing. We even have a small aquarium with brightly colored fish. And all this connection with nature helps at some subtle levels of consciousness and gives us the inner balance that sometimes makes all the difference and helps us push for the extra mile.

CEEIHM: You mentioned that it is a point of personal pride that between a relatively small team, you can effectively cover most of the necessary legal work in-house. Why is that important to you/your group?

Marian: It goes without saying that it all comes down to trust. First of all, it is important for us to believe in ourselves – to believe that what we do, we do well. It is only if you truly believe that you can be of great help and act as a solid department and a pillar of the whole group. Obviously, it is just as relevant for our trust to be matched by positive results, for our expertise to produce concrete added-value where, and when, needed. Furthermore, it is almost equally important for the group to see in our team strength and composure, to have confidence in the fact that all activities, on all lines of business, are carried out in full accordance with the legal framework in effect and, subsequently, in any of the cases where breaches occur, and to have the representation that we will make every possible effort to rectify the situation and remedy as much direct, or collateral, damage as possible.

CEEIHM: How do you go about identifying the needs of the group on a proactive/strategic basis?

Marian: There is a lot to say here but I will summarize only three aspects, which I find most relevant. In order to know where your expertise is needed and to be proactive, you need to know as much as possible about the ongoing and future business processes and flows. And you have to keep a constant course of this information accumulation process so you can connect the dots more and more easily. Otherwise, your contribution will be mostly reactive.

One of the optimizations I try to achieve, as a GC, is to talk as much as possible one-on-one with colleagues in the group – not only with those at the top management level – in order to keep myself updated on their activity and the issues they are encountering. Then, I try to grasp as much legal information as I can, even though it might seem highly unlikely to be put to good use on a daily or regular basis. It takes time, but you never know when you might need that piece of reference. A Japanese proverb says “sharpen your sword all your life even if you never get to use it.” Much wisdom is contained in those words and I try not only to do my job but to live by them.

On the strategic side, one key element is the ability to read, at least at the basic level, the economic game – to be able to distinguish among big trends in business, to understand competition and competitors, their triggers and hidden moves, and how they can affect your position and interests.

And, of course, you definitely have to see the legislative bullet coming. The ability to keep a close eye on the legislative process, to understand and foresee the impact that certain changes in the legal framework could have on the group – all represent a must-have for a GC. The sooner some potential legal threats are identified, the better you can counter-attack or adapt your activities to the new framework. This is vital for us at Vrancart, operating under a lot of environmental legislation, for example, because one of our main desires is not only to create economic added-value but also to achieve that goal in a green and sustainable manner.

CEEIHM: Once you identified those needs, how do you assess if you can address them with your internal team or if you need to expand it?

Marian: I already mentioned my pride in keeping almost all the legal activities in-house with the team at my disposal. I prefer things to be concentrated. I prefer that we grow in expertise and benefits more than in terms of numbers. At the end of the day, that also boosts confidence and the “yes, we can” attitude. We talk a lot in the office about ways of bettering ourselves and how to find the proper mental manner to address all kinds of situations calmly and rationally. Because we do have the legal expertise – we just need to focus more on the mental levers that can put us in a better position for superior performance. No doubt, we collaborate with external lawyers when confronted with some very technical or extremely specialized legal issues, or when we really feel the need to have a second objective opinion from an outside perspective. And there have been some situations when that approach proved very useful or even saved the day – I am not afraid to admit that.

CEEIHM: When hiring what do you look for in a candidate?

Marian: Definitely the right attitude, no matter the position – from junior to senior. It’s a must! As the saying goes, hire for attitude, train for skills. And it is not just a motto that sounds good, it’s for real. You can train skills far easier than you can train attitude. Experience so far has shown me that a colleague with the right attitude and average legal skills is more useful to the team than one with a bad attitude but with good skills. Proper emotional intelligence comes next. The right candidate has to be mentally prepared to assume the duties of the job and to be able to perform adequately. For example, again, experience has many times shown the wonders of resilience. The ability to not give up no matter what. Sometimes it is more about that rather than legal knowledge. And speaking about legal knowledge in itself, of course, that is also important, although only third in line for me preceded by the other points. I have always tried to have no prejudices when assessing candidates. A good CV counts, but it is not decisive. You have to be open-minded. Talk to anyone in a fair manner and look for the features that you really need for that job, not for the ideal ones. If you need a junior, screen for a suitable one and nothing else. Over-qualification can be a nice asset in the short-term but it will surely bring frustration to your team in the long-run.

CEEIHM: What do you think are the top five must-have features for a GC to be an effective manager?

Marian: A good GC should inspire and be humble at the same time. That is a powerful combination, almost paradoxical, so quite rare. Master that and you will lead by example. At the same time, honesty counts much with the team as does the ability to listen and communicate properly. We are all human after all, and we often need to be heard with empathy, and to see that we really count, that our emotions mean something, that we are not just assets. Finally, the ability to give accurate feedback and feedforward, whether positive or less positive.

CEEIHM: Finally, the best advice you can give to newcomers to your team in no more than three words.

Marian: Be yourself!

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