Stephen Swanson, Chief Legal Officer with Invest AD – Abu Dhabi Investment Company, discusses the challenges of advising on fund launches in countries like Iraq, and the merits of adapting to different cultural requirements.
Asian-Counsel: How did your career lead you to your current role with Invest AD?
Stephen Swanson: I joined Invest AD in 2008 after serving as the Global Head of Investments for the Citigroup Global Wealth Management Legal Department, working with teams in New York, London, Hong Kong and Singapore. Since the early stages of my career, I have focused on advising parties on complex transactions and investment products across the international marketplace. As more companies seek to do business across borders, the demand for lawyers who know how to provide top-level advisory services across multiple jurisdictions and who can adapt to different cultural and practical requirements has grown considerably. Joining Invest AD as Chief Legal Officer represented a unique and exciting challenge for me as a US-trained lawyer, as Invest AD was embarking on a new strategy to leverage its history as an Abu Dhabi government-led investment company to create a third-party asset management and fund manufacturing platform. In recent months, we have formed funds focused on opportunities in the Middle East and Africa, including the frontier markets of Iraq and Libya. We also formed investment partnerships with top financial institutions in Germany, Hong Kong and Japan.
AC: What is the current composition of your in-house team?
SS: In addition to me, we have a dedicated and gifted team of two senior lawyers, a paralegal and an assistant. Each one of them possesses skills required to operate in a multijurisdictional environment – fluency in multiple languages, experience in different countries and, most importantly, strong interest in working in an international environment with people from all parts of the world. One of our lawyers, Hazem Zaidan, studied in France and Jordan before coming to work in the UAE, including a stint with a London-based law firm before joining Invest AD. Another lawyer, Mark Saltzburg, studied and practiced in the US before serving as the General Counsel for another UAE-based company. Together with our multilingual and multitalented support team, they comprise a lean but flexible legal team able to adapt to the many and varied demands placed upon our company and our department.
AC: What are the biggest obstacles faced in your role, and on a broader level by your in-house team?
SS: Besides advising on fund launches in Iraq and Libya? The biggest challenge faced in many of the markets in which I have practiced is getting clients to understand and respect the role that lawyers can play as trusted strategic advisers. It is not unusual for lawyers to be viewed at first as policemen or nay-sayers who might unnecessarily complicate or present obstacles to a successful closing or product launch, or as functionaries whose approval is required but whose advice is not sought except in the strictest legal sense. Viewed in this light, a business team will often try to manage around the legal team in an effort to minimise complications, rather than employ the legal team’s unique set of skills and resources. My first role as a lawyer is to ensure that my clients understand and appreciate the unique way in which lawyers are trained to analyze problems and deliver solutions derived from exposure to a wide variety of issues across multiple clients and transactions. In this way, I help my clients understand that good lawyers represent a valuable source of advice useful in ensuring successful outcomes, while at the same time mitigating risks for clients down the road.
AC: What is the nature of the relationship between Invest AD in-house function and the business?
SS: The role of the Invest AD legal team has evolved in recent years to one of close partnership with our business at all levels. Members of the legal team are called upon to work with the business teams at the earliest stages of projects and transactions, which allows us to identify and manage risks before they become problems and work with our business teams to develop mutually-agreed solutions. Our team members are routinely sought out for their advice and assistance throughout the company across a wide variety of issues. As such, the legal team is thought of as a truly integrated part of the business rather than simply as a control function. Invest AD senior management also seeks to involve members of the legal team on projects and investments in a non-legal capacity, in order to enhance the team’s commercial understanding of our business. Altogether, we have succeeded in creating a close bond between our front-line businesses and their support teams, where each understands each others’ skills and assets and deploys them collectively for the benefit of the company. AC