Business

Behind the veil of in-house legal with InView Champion Helen Doukas

We take you behind the veil of legal with a series of interviews discussing all things in-house with several of our InView champions.

Helen Doukas, Head of Legal and Regulatory at Airways and previous Senior Legal Counsel at Uber, shares with us some of her legal best practice. Helen delves into Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) regulations, business personalities and the role of legal in upskilling commercial acumen.

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How can in-house legal help the wider business on a day-to-day basis?

I'd say that we help the business achieve its goals through helping drive sustainable and lower risk commercial outcomes. An important part of that is that it’s not just a legal strategy that we're driving, but it’s partnering with the organisation to shape the commercial strategy with something that's sustainable and longer term. I see us helping to unlock opportunities. That is definitely something I value in my career as well; I like finding roles which give me enough flexibility to be creative in the advice that I give to make it meaningful. 

I think the job of an in-house lawyer is to act as a bit of a funnel, people don't want to hear every piece of legislation and what it has to say in every section. Nobody cares. So a lot of my job is doing the thinking, internally and behind the scenes, and then coming up with a one liner or one paragraph that's relevant to people. When I was on secondment at Microsoft - which was my first in-house experience - I received a good piece of advice from a lawyer. He said: “People don't want to hear your thinking; people just want the answer.” He made everything look so effortless, so this piece of advice was a bit of an ah-ha moment for me. 

I’ve also found business personality assessments to be valuable. Depending on where someone sits on these wheels, ie disc assessments, it helps give insight about how they best receive information. Do they like things with a lot of detail upfront, or perhaps they want a short, snappy answer? Do they want to really engage verbally, or do they want something in writing? I always try to give my advice based on how the recipient will receive it. It's not a one size fits all; not everybody wants a yes or no answer, and it's not always going to be appropriate depending on the level of risk. But also, everyone's personalities need slightly different ways of being presented with information.

What are the key functions of legal as a resource to the organization that everyone should know? 

There's the obvious: giving legal advice, helping with contracts, helping navigate disputes, helping manage litigation. Outside of that, it's helping avoid disputes and problems that arise. You do that through upskilling, on both legal and, in some cases, broader commercial matters. 

Legal upskilling is expected and welcomed by organisations. While this is critical, I think as in-house lawyers we can offer more than this. For instance, by the time someone has been a lawyer for a few years, particularly a contract lawyer, we’ve experienced heaps of deals and negotiations, from start to finish. Often, we've been in the trenches in those negotiations. With this comes experiences around negotiating, structuring deals, knowing what can go wrong (contractually and commercially) and how to avoid it, and other commercial tactics. While we certainly don’t claim to have the skills of project or commercial managers, I do think it’s beneficial for an organisation to be open to the value of a legal team that helps upskill commercial acumen as well as providing purely legal advice. Another example would be helping shape and protect an organisation’s brand strategy through trademark and other IP experience. Taking advantage of our broader skill set helps make the most of your in-house function. 

At Airways, we rolled out a structured business learning program that responds to key organisational risks and training needs. It focuses on improving understanding of legal obligations, provides tips to avoid issues in the first place, and gives guidance on what to do when they do arise.  We’ve had great engagement throughout the business at all levels; the executive team see the program as helping manage key risks for which they are responsible and staff appreciate the comfort of having guidance on matters that come up in their roles but may be outside their expertise.  

A related point is that our experience can also be used to shape or structure a deal or strategy from the outset. This is something I'm sure everybody says to you; the earlier you engage legal, the more we're involved in the preventative advice and structural advice, and the more effectively we can pre-empt and mitigate legal issues or other risks that may arise.

We have laid the foundation for contract negotiations, for example, if upfront we say, “Hey, if you want our business, we don't agree to liability cap over this, or we won't agree with this term. And if you're not comfortable with that now, there's no need to progress.” If you set the scene early enough, you can create a stronger negotiating strategy down the track. There are different stages in the deal where you have more leverage. So it's about encouraging an organisation to partner with legal to understand how you can create and strengthen your negotiating strategy in those early stages where you have more leverage. Because by the time it comes to the eleventh hour of the deal, you may need this just as much as they do. You don't necessarily have the same bargaining power. 

What do you enjoy most about your work? 

I just love what I do. I feel very lucky about that. The variety of the work in my current role is particularly appealing, and the aviation sector is a really interesting (and, of course, challenging) space to be in right now.  Our team does a lot of global contracting work for the commercial arm of the business, and at the same time we are heavily involved in a number of transformational programmes as well as general advisory and regulatory work.There's a lot of change and burgeoning innovation in the sector and I find that energizing.

If we look at the drone regulatory space as an example, internationally technology is progressing at lightspeed, and there's a new regulatory environment that's being created globally. New Zealand is on the same path. Air space will look very different in 20 years’ time than it does today, and decisions made today around what UAV legislation will look like, will shape the future of our skies. Understanding that and having a part to play in this is really interesting. 

In-house legal are known to 'put out fires before they begin'. How does an in-house team mitigate and foresee risk before it arises?

It's probably all the stuff you've already heard, like the training and early engagement I mentioned earlier, and embedding ourselves in the various business units and their upcoming strategy. If you understand the business and you understand the highest risk areas, you can hone in on those areas and ask for engagement at certain key milestones or touch points.  Processes are also important; you need to understand the approval and workflow processes of each business unit and agree in advance how legal sign off fits into that.  This alignment creates a blueprint for appropriate and timely legal engagement.  An obvious example is that legal engagement could be triggered when a low risk contract management issue escalates to a dispute, whereas for a more high-risk strategic matter I would ask that legal be engaged much earlier so we can operate with more of a preventative strategy as well as just the reactive strategy.  In all cases when deciding legal’s level of involvement, effective resource management needs to be balanced against the potential harm and risk being addressed.  

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Helen’s savviness in harnessing legal capabilities to provide not only legal advice but upskilling commercial acumen is worth reflecting on for every in-house legal team, no matter the size of the organization they serve. Operating in this manner not only better integrates the legal team with the business, it also capitalizes on the untapped potential of legal as a function, as well as providing better business outcomes for all.  

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