In-House Insights with Maria Zarah R. Villanueva Castro of Manila Electric Company

Q: Tell us a little about your professional background and how you came to be in your current role?

Sometime in 1997, I started as Court Attorney for the Philippine Court of Appeals where I assisted Justices in evaluating and drafting decisions on cases appealed before them.

I then had a short stint as department manager at a Government-owned and controlled corporation until I decided to join the Manila Electric Company or Meralco in 1999. Meralco is the largest electric distribution company in the Philippines. I started as a staff lawyer performing litigation work until I was designated to head its Corporate Legal team.

During my free time, I also teach in law schools where I impart my knowledge of commercial law.

Q: How big is your team and how is it structured?

Our Corporate Legal office is composed of 10 lawyers and seven paralegal and administrative staff. Two teams report to me – one handles corporate legal work for Meralco and the other team renders legal services to Meralco’s subsidiaries and affiliates.

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing In-House lawyers today?

One big challenge in-house lawyers inevitably face is how to balance a duty to promote the company’s business and at the same time ensure it is compliant with rules, which are often perceived as obstacles in meeting goals and targets.

The bigger the organization, the more risks are shifted to the in-house counsel and at times, they must make commercial decisions. So, it is for a counsel to understand the business, its goals and targets, as well as strategies. It is also imperative to communicate the risks surrounding management decisions. In-house counsel are also expected to provide commercially astute, but legally sound solutions to avoid or manage these risks.

Another challenge is balancing efficiency and effectiveness and educating the company on this balance. In this situation, an in-house counsel should proactively drive proposals that reduce costs while also identifying suitable benchmarks of efficiency.

Security of data, information and even contracts is also a common challenge, especially during this pandemic. The in-house counsel must align with the rapid changes in technology and be able to manage the associated risks posed by these developments.

Meralco Corporate Legal Planning

Q: Did you have a mentor early in your career? Is mentorship important?

I found the mentorship when I was a young lawyer to be very helpful. Because of the varied issues confronted by our company due to its highly regulated business as the largest distribution utility company in the Philippines, my mentors motivated me to always to be updated on its business and operational issues and relevant legal concerns. They exposed me to the intricacies of the power industry and how to effectively, yet politely, deal with its customers and regulators.

Mentoring is valuable to one’s professional or personal growth. A mentor’s feedback can help one improve their craft and instill confidence and trust in a person’s capabilities. A mentor can provide impartial advice or guidance using relevant knowledge and experience. With these insights, the mentee would know what steps to take especially in crucial situations.

A mentor can also help establish a mentee’s professional network and connect them to potential opportunities for free.

Q: How is technology changing the way you work?

Technology has made it possible for us to work in situations where it would be impossible to coordinate and communicate with everyone. Software tools such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Google Meet and other electronic conferencing applications have made it possible to connect online to discuss important issues and operational information to keep our company running efficiently and smoothly.

Despite the difficulties posed by the coronavirus, we can continue our detailed work and pass on documents, reports and other valuable information needed to coordinate with each other and keep each project on track.

Q: What do you most look for in a law firm when outsourcing work?

We look for reliable and trustworthy partners with sound legal minds and a competent and quality track record. We also look for timely handling of legal issues and at the punctuality in submission of their deliverables. We also look at the accuracy of their work as to our projects that need specialized handling, knowledge and experience.

Q: Other than law firms, what services and tools help your legal department the most?

Due to the need to work from home, reliable internet service is invaluable these days. We also rely on communication software and sometimes, even our smart phones have become important tools for communication, especially when needing to communicate without our laptops around.

Maria Zarah R. Villanueva Castro Kids

Q: What aspects of your In-House role do you most enjoy?

Our corporate legal team is often consulted with decisions that affect the operations and business decisions of our company. I enjoy that my team has a direct connection with important aspects not only of Meralco, but also to provide legal services for its subsidiaries/affiliates. We also have exposure to varied businesses – like collection, power generation, financing, construction, e-transport, telecommunications, renewable ventures and insurance among other things.

It is challenging but intellectually fulfilling when we resolve issues with projects and contracts. We learn a lot especially when the counter party is a foreign entity. These experiences could teach us new ideas to bolster our own processes.

Lastly, our lawyers treat each other like we are a family. While we often argue on legal issues presented to us, which is a good intellectual exercise for everyone, but, at the end of the day, there is this sense of respect and support on the ultimate decision or direction to take. I personally believe that lawyers are happier with their job when they have close friendship or camaraderie at work.

Q: What changes do you foresee in how legal services will be provided in the coming years?

Legal services will always have legal research and writing at their core, so as far as those functions are concerned, they will probably remain constant. What will change is the interactions between lawyers and clients. These days, physical interaction is risky because of the threat of the coronavirus, and so new ways will have to be explored for lawyers to meet their deliverables efficiently.

Providing results also will depend on accurate research, which is sometimes difficult, especially if the data can only be collected through field work. But there are always new challenges and ingenious solutions. It is just a matter of keeping abreast of technology and looking for clever ways to connect with people.

Q: What advice would you give young lawyers starting their careers today?

Do not be afraid to step out of your comfort zones. In the past, I was a timid person and always cautious of accepting work I thought I would not be able to do, mainly because I never had any experience in the past.

Be honest in rendering legal advice. Flag risks but recommend measures to mitigate or manage them.
Manage your deadlines. List them and learn to prioritize. Ensure quality yet timely disposal of your deliverables.
Learn from your mistakes. Learn to recover from them. Be humble and appreciate that these mistakes will make you a better lawyer someday.

Relish your relationships with your mentors but learn to develop independence. Your mentors will not be with you forever.

Establish good relationship with your colleagues and co-workers. Be respectful and polite but articulate your legal position with conviction. This will earn the trust of your superiors and co-workers.

Lastly, be kind to yourself. Eat healthy food, regularly exercise and unwind from time to time.

Q: What is your hinterland (what do you most like to do away from work)?

I choose to handle work-related stress with style. Aside from teaching in law school where I get to mentor students to become lawyers, painting is also a pensive way of dealing with stress. When I hold the brush and blend colors onto the canvas, I feel at peace with myself. I look for inspiration in a lot of things, such as a beautiful view, colors in the sky or just about anything that may be driving me at that moment.

During this pandemic, we all suddenly found ourselves within the walls of our homes, and many felt a frustration and helplessness while worrying about what may happen next. My hobby of painting helped bring tranquility and happiness and released tension, fears and uncertainties. Likewise, it also helps me re-energize, when needed.


Disclaimer: All views are personal and do not reflect that of the organization. The views shared are not intended for any legal advice and are for general information and education purposes only.


* This article was first published in the October 2021 issue of the IHC Magazine. You can read/download the magazine here.

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