This In-House Insight was published in IHC eMagazine Vol1, Issue 1. to read the full magazine, please click here.
Carina Wessels is the Executive: Governance, Legal & Compliance at Alexander Forbes and Advocate of the High Court of South Africa.
I am grateful for a varied career, which truly made me a well-rounded and commercially minded executive. I’ve managed company aircraft, balanced scorecard facilitation and coordination, managed SAP projects, bespoke 20 keys (similar to the Toyota production system principles) and performed many continuous business improvement interventions. Over the last 14 years, I was principally involved in the governance, legal and compliance disciplines. And after a decade and a half in the mining industry, I moved to financial services in 2017 (Alexander Forbes Group Holdings Limited) as Group Company Secretary. Six months later, I was the Group Company Secretary and General Counsel and a year after that I became the Executive of Governance, Legal and Compliance.
Q: How big is your team and how is it structured?
I have 26 people in the bigger team, most directly managed by Fiona Rollason, Head of Legal and Group Insurance, Shabnam Parker, Chief Compliance Officer and the Assistant Group Secretary/Assistant General Counsel. But that last position is presently vacant.
Q: What are the biggest challenges for in-house lawyers?
Establishing a solid and mutually supportive relationship with business is a constant challenge. This is especially true if in-house lawyers aren’t commercially minded or focused on enabling legal solutions. The ability to operate in “the grey” is crucial.
Also, I have noticed a need to do more with less. Covid-19 revealed how many lawyers have not been exposed to systems thinking, innovation and continuous improvement concepts and they find it hard to deliver better, faster, cheaper every day. For the traditionalist lawyer adding new people is often the only answer to a problem. But that should be the last resort, particularly after Covid-19. This approach comes from my time in mining dealing with multiple resource cycles and severe labour cut backs.
I can draw up an interesting list from just the last few years. But I’ll focus on my best career lessons:
It really is the toughest times that teach the most, when you truly think you won’t survive. Looking back, you can see how you expanded your comfort and knowledge zone and are better placed to take on future challenges. What carried me through was the supportive ear of my husband, my unwavering drive to not disappoint, de-stressing with cherished family time and exercising (and off course champagne). I also always had a positive goal to work towards – be it a vacation or just the belief that “this too shall pass.”
Q: Did you have a mentor early in your career?
I’ve had a number of mentors and strongly believe in the value of such relationships. It’s good to surround yourself with people who inspire you to greatness, even on a social basis. That could be as exemplary Christians, parents or generally positive human beings. I also feel a strong sense of responsibility to mentor young professionals. I initially presented pre-exam courses part-time (it’s awesome to see my students excel later in their careers), but for the last decade have tried one-on-one mentorship and giving career advice to younger lawyers.
Q: What do you look for in a law firm when outsourcing work?
- Definitely speed and responsiveness. They must make me feel my work is their priority because often we require urgent advice;
- Value for money and a willingness to consider discounts;
- Value added services – such as free newsletters, updates or training.
Q: What non-legal services and tools help you the most?
I get a lot of use out of legal process outsourcing services for our supply chain agreements.
For me it’s the merger and acquisition activities when the CEO, CFO and I work as a core negotiating team designing the strategy and transactions.
Q: What changes do you see coming in how legal services will be provided?
Generally, working online has emphasised the outcome and almost made the process or source irrelevant. Virtual work tools mean we can reimagine a seamless link of resources to get the job done. This extends beyond the traditional debate of in-source versus outsource. It’s possible now to create an ecosystem of service providers who are not focused on designation or title, but on expertise, collaboration, delivery, results and customer satisfaction.
We know there are massive court backlogs in even the more efficient countries and new forms of dispute resolution haven’t really shifted that needle. The only way to give the world more access to justice is the greater use of digital legal proceedings. It won’t be suitable to all litigation, but it can make great strides in transforming a costly, formal, protracted process into a more enlightened and efficient alternative.
Even before Covid-19, traditional law schools were facing stiff competition from digital or virtual learning service providers that are now accessible, affordable and high-quality. In response, schools are being forced to use similar digital solutions and it’s inevitable that these may become a more suitable, affordable and flexible option. Will universities die? Probably not. But they will grapple with new and agile competitors, with technology as the key enabler.
Q: What advice can you give young lawyers?
- Surround yourself with greatness. Seek and optimise every opportunity to learn from others;
- Choose to be great yourself. Unless it is brilliant, it is not good enough. Be the hardest worker in the room. Leave a piece of work, a person or a place better off because you were there;
- Actively expand your comfort zone. Be hungry for learning, especially in areas that offer broader experience and exposure.
Q: What is your hinterland (what do you most enjoy doing outside of work)?
Cycling with my husband, movie night with my daughter, precious time with family and friends, travelling. That’s when I get lots of reading finished too.