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Inside Insight: Checking in on Eleni Stathaki of Upstream

Inside Insight: Checking in on Eleni Stathaki of Upstream

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In the October 2015 issue of the CEE Legal Matters magazine we spoke with Eleni Stakathi, the Head of Legal at Upstream in Greece. We decided to check in with her and see how things had changed in the last four years.

CEELM: What’s new? How has your job changed, or how have you changed in it, since we last spoke?

Eleni: Both my job and I have changed in the last four years – in a positive way.

Upstream, the company I work for, has seen dramatic changes in terms of its products and operations in the past few years, and obviously this has affected the work of the Legal department as well.  We are now helping with the development and commercialization of new products. Our work has always addressed the issue of having innovative offerings comply with ambiguous regulations, but you see this now more frequently than ever. 

In parallel – or maybe as a result of the operational shift in the company – I feel that Legal’s scope of work has expanded and that we are now seen as a true business partner able to add value to operations and facilitate business rather than just a support function. 

Further, as the number of local and international regulations with which organizations need to comply grew, we became conscious of the need to develop and implement internal compliance programs and processes. There is a now a team member fully dedicated to compliance. In the same context, Legal is now tasked with developing the Enterprise Risk Management register. While not traditionally part of legal work, it is an interesting and welcome change.

Another tremendous change was the arrival of the GDPR. Compliance with the GDPR was the one major project last year. In the end, this was done successfully and on time, although it never really stops. While we did have help from outside providers, we still were the main liaison for correctly transposing the GDPR’s requirements to our business and implementing them in our organization. This took up a lot of effort and resources. However, we are proud to say that there was minimal disruption in other projects that were running in parallel and in day-to-day operations.

As for me, I find that my legal project management skills have evolved and I am much better at facing and managing crises - which is always a valuable skill. 

CEELM: When you say Legal’s scope expanded, how did that happen, exactly?

Eleni: Up until a few years ago, the main purpose of the legal function was limited to drafting commercial contracts and managing outside counsel.

Our role became broader over time. As an example, following a corporate reorganization of the Upstream group where we worked in close cooperation with Tax and Finance, last year there was an operational reorganization, including the development, commercial release, and commercialization of certain new products. The legal team worked on supporting new business initiatives by providing advice on regulations in areas such as net neutrality and global data privacy. Further, we developed new documentation templates tailored to the business needs of the new ventures. A few years back, a lot of the above would have been outsourced in its entirety. We still do use outside counsel for all sorts of matters, though.  

As to why the scope expanded, I think it was a combination of things: the business grew and so did its needs and over the years, and Legal and the various stakeholders developed a trusting relationship.  

What certainly helped is that at some point the stakeholders realized that when they asked Legal something, they wouldn’t get pages of caveats and legal analysis, but rather practical options that would help overcome their concerns. Another factor was that we don’t live in our own legal Ivory Tower, but actively try to get to know the business and educate ourselves on commercial and operational matters so that ultimately we are able to offer better advice. Usually behind every request, there is a commercial rationale, and when you understand that rationale, you can address the concern more efficiently. 

CEELM: What does your full legal/compliance team look like, compared to how it was when you joined Upstream in 2010?

Eleni: We are a very small team – right now, it’s me and another person (we had an intern until last month). 

When I joined, I was sole in-house counsel and we tended to outsource several tasks that we now keep in-house. 

I am the Head of Legal and report to the CFO. My role is to form and implement strategies for Legal, and also to provide guidance to the legal team on various matters, including its interaction with other departments and stakeholders. I also manage the team’s budget – not a small task considering we work with over 25 outside counsel worldwide. 

Evi Mesaikou is the Legal and Compliance Manager and reports to me. Evi handles everything involving corporate governance. She also oversees the anti-bribery and corruption programs and handles the implementation of internal processes and manages all legal records and reporting. She also serves as the Data Protection Officer, but in that capacity, she reports to the Board of Directors.

Having said that, as we are only two, we cannot afford a high level of task allocation, so we both do a bit of everything, especially when it comes to contract drafting and reviewing. 

CEELM: You say you use “outside counsel for all sorts of matters.” Do you have a panel of preferred advisors? If so, how do firms get on that panel, and how was it created? If not, does that mean every different kind of matter requires another beauty pageant?

Eleni: Upstream has business in several jurisdictions and as a result, we typically use 25 or more outside counsel on an annual basis to address issues related to those jurisdictions. Some of them we already had a strong relationship with before I came onboard. 

Others I have chosen on the basis of referrals, which is my preferred approach. It can be very efficient when you ask a trusted outside counsel who knows the business and the style of your company for a referral in another country or even in another practice area. The referee typically knows the law firm profile sought by the company and advises accordingly. Further, this method is especially convenient when time is of the essence and you need to appoint appropriate external counsel on very short notice.

We have been very lucky so far in that we generally have solid working relationships with our preferred firms. I find it very helpful not to have to give context when working on a new task and long-term legal partners will already be familiar with the company and/or previous cases we have dealt with. 

We might do beauty pageants for special tasks like a major task, such as M&A or a big litigation case, but this doesn’t come about very often. 

CEELM: Have you had a major project in the past year or two that was particularly demanding of your legal and/or management skills? 

Eleni: Yes, we had an internal reorganization two years ago, both on the corporate and operational front. It wasn’t particularly demanding legally and we had external help from experts where needed. However, there were a lot of dependencies between project tasks and as usual timelines were strict. I found that a very detailed step plan really helped with coordinating everyone. Further, the approach of “working backwards” from a target date was also very useful. That’s something I picked up at Upstream. 

I would just like to add that being an in-house counsel is, in my experience, more about managing day-to-day operations, which are typically not rocket science, nor are they exciting projects from a legal point of view. There is a lot of added value in dealing efficiently and in a practical manner with each task, however small, without compromising on quality

This Article was originally published in Issue 6.8 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.

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