ODI Law Firm Partner Matjaz Jan interviews Miha Ursic, the General Counsel of HIT d.d. in Slovenia for CEE Legal Matters’ Face-to-Face.
M.J.: Please describe your path to become a general counsel? Which skills and attributes do you think were useful in becoming one?
M.U.: I have been with the casino and entertainment company HIT since the start of my 11-year-long professional legal career. I started as a trainee, gradually grew to the position of a legal counsellor, and was appointed General Counsel four years ago. The most important special skills required to be successful as a General Counsel is a deep knowledge of the internal processes of the company, as well as special substantive laws and regulations. The most important attributes are loyalty, dedication, and honesty, all of which are required to stay with a company for the long term and reach the top.
M.J.: Where do you see the biggest differences between a General Counsel and other lawyers?
M.U.: A General Counsel must not only focus on the legal aspect of his or her decisions, but must always take into account what exactly each decision would mean for the company. Therefore, the general counsel must make a decision which should bring the best benefits to the company while keeping any risk as low as possible.
M.J.: Do you think that General Counsels have to form themselves as lawyers first, whichever industry they may work in, or should they start in their target industries as soon as feasible?
M.U.: The important thing is that a person gets as much work experience in a company as possible – even better if it is in the target industry. It is distinctly different than working in a law firm or at a government agency. You gain knowledge of how a company and its employees (most of which are not lawyers) work and breathe together. The opportunity to know how things would work at the ground level in each individual company is invaluable.
M.J.: A General Counsel must also be a good leader. How do you inspire your other team members to be part of your vision? Do you prefer a more high-level or hands-on approach when managing people?
M.U.: Team management is one of the main pillars of my work. How you approach things should first and foremost be focused on the team itself and not on the person leading. If you work with a small group of people, which is the case at our company, a hands-on approach is possible. We have managed to build honest and direct relationships and everyone knows what my thoughts, goals and values are due to our daily discussions and brainstorming sessions. Once the general course of the group is set, you need to trust the employees to implement your vision and execute it however they may see fit.
M.J.: Which challenges and responsibilities of leading an entire legal department do you deem most important?
M.U.: The gambling industry is one of the most regulated industries there are, so it is very challenging to find a quick, economical, and at the same time legally compliant solution to every problem. You need to know the regulatory practice and landscape, the market trends and your competitors, and your company itself, and fuse all this knowledge when deciding how to proceed.
M.J.: How do you determine the size and levels of expertise of the team members in your legal department?
M.U.: This is mostly a trial and error process. When deciding how many skilled people to hire, you try to plan for future needs and then see how things end up and adjust accordingly. It is quite difficult to know what is going to happen until it does, and positive and negative surprises are common. You can only learn from past experience and trust your instinct. And through this process we have been able to assemble a very skillful legal team – which I consider the strongest in the Slovenian gambling industry.
M.J.: A General Counsel also manages external resources. How do you decide to outsource a legal case or project and how do you manage both and in-house teams?
M.U.: We ask our external lawyers for help when we deal with a specific legal matter which can be separated from the rest of the processes, when we face a big court case or strategic decision with a lot on the line and where special legal knowledge – or at least a second outside opinion – is required. At the end of the day, however, each case is by its nature embedded in the work process of the company and both teams need to work together to exchange knowledge and experience and achieve the optimal solution.
M.J.: How do you decide when choosing your external counsel? Which criteria determine an external counsel’s successful pitch (for example, price, references, field expertise, length of cooperation)?
M.U.: My most important criterion is whether I completely trust the counsel to do the right thing. This trust is primarily built through working together for many years, therefore the length of successful cooperation is considered very important. You can always look into referrals from other people, but you cannot really know who you are working with until you actually work with them for an extended period of time. This also brings to light the real level of their expertise and their real value. Only then can you really compare it with the price you pay for their services. This is also why I do not really take into account the counsel’s reputation and rankings when making my decision.
M.J.: For matters outside your home jurisdiction, what is the type of cooperation that you prefer? Do you prefer to utilize the services of a foreign office of your go-to law firm, their foreign contacts from past projects, their foreign contacts from various international law firm networks, or an entirely new firm?
M.U.: We have experienced different types of collaboration and it all depends on what kind of services we specifically need. As a general rule, a higher degree of international cooperation and seamless coordination between foreign lawyers and ourselves or our external counsel, especially if it is for a longer period of time, is always welcome. But in any case, the physical presence of the lawyer in the city or country where you are doing business or having a dispute is obligatory.
M.J.: Why did you choose ODI as your external counsel?
M.U.: I have great trust and confidence in your work. I like your professionalism and fast responsiveness.
M.J.: Regarding your work with external counsel, where do you see the most room for improvement?
M.U.: Nowadays, regulation has become so developed and specific for each sector of the economy that a high degree of specialization is a must, even for an external counsel. I am also a supporter of closer relationships and regular contacts and discussion. Therefore I would like to see non-billable meetings as a core offering of all external counsels. This should not be viewed as a free service but as an investment in the relationship between the client and the counsel, of which both parties can gain value.
M.J.: How do you follow amendments of legislation and stay up-to-date with the newest legal developments? Which legal market trends do you anticipate in the forthcoming years?
M.U.: We follow amendments of legislation by following special Internet pages designed for this purpose. We also have weekly internal meetings where one lawyer reports on the newest developments. Regarding the trends, I would like to stress that bigger is not always better. The best lawyer is the one who is above else focused on your problem and involved in resolving it and who can reach into extensive knowledge about the client as well as the law when searching for the best solution.