The Corner Office – Andrew Tavi of Nissan

Tavi

AALM: How did you make your transition to corporate counsel? How do you stay connected to the private practice community?
Tavi: I handled much of the corporate, M&A and securities work for one of our firm clients – a small public company based in Michigan. They asked me to be their general counsel to guide them through an aggressive, global acquisition strategy. My transition from private practice to general counsel was easy because my practice had prepared me for most of what I was now responsible for as a corporate counsel. I would have been much more reliant on outside counsel had I been a litigator.

AALM: What qualities do you look for when choosing outside counsel for litigation needs?
Tavi: We look for demonstrated expertise and success in the subject matter and jurisdiction in which the litigation will be pursued. It is fair to say that we look to the attorney, not the firm. Each attorney principal in our cases has a deep understanding of our business and our approach to litigation.

AALM: How would you describe your ideal relationship with outside counsel?
Tavi: It is an overused term, but it is indeed a partnership. Our external counsel must serve as extensions of the in-house staff. They must understand our business objectives and each of the ways the matter they are handling may impact our business or our brand. They look at the relationship as a long-term proposition, so they should be very mindful that results and costs on individual matters affect the prospect of additional work.

AALM: What major concerns does your company’s leadership raise about outside counsel? How do you address those issues?
Tavi: Our leadership does not involve itself much with choice of counsel or the manner in which we use them. They expect their own in-house lawyers to have thoroughly investigated each issue and explore all potential solutions to the matter at hand. In that respect, our in-house team has to own any external counsel advice, and ensure that our counsel has contemplated all expertise and opinions on the issue. We do not tell our leaders that outside counsel has opined X. It is our opinion and we must stand behind it.

AALM: In what areas, do you believe the legal community has fallen behind the business world?
Tavi: At Nissan, we are constantly looking to align goals and be as efficient as possible (both financially and otherwise). Yet the legal community is still tied to a compensation system that rewards outside counsel based largely on the time or resources they utilize to resolve an issue. There has been a slow evolution, but firms that do not evolve will find themselves left behind.

AALM: How has technology changed your business and your legal needs?
Tavi: The rise of social media outlets for our customers, competitors and employees requires constant vigilance and monitoring. It not only requires subject matter expertise, but also real time review and counsel. But the technological advancements in our industry present the biggest impact. The advancement of vehicle technologies has been dramatic, from operational systems to infotainment capabilities. This advancement, along with the new frontiers of vehicle connectivity and autonomous vehicles, requires our teams to become data and systems experts to be able to give competent and reliable advice to our leadership. It is critical that our team members remain educated on future products and offerings, so that we can be in a position to have an impact on how they are developed, marketed and used.

AALM: How would you recommend a law firm maintain a relationship with their business client?
Tavi: Again, the firm needs to invest fully in the client. It must ensure that all personnel assigned to the client’s matters have a deep understanding of the client’s business, their objectives and their leadership. Then, it must consider itself an extension of in-house counsel, taking action and rendering advice accordingly.

AALM: Share a unique story with our readers about a positive or negative outside counsel experience.
Tavi: I do not recall a particularly unique story off hand. However, I have had a number of my attorneys provide a unique solution to CEO-level issues that confronted us, and that engendered a great deal of loyalty. As to negative experiences, thankfully they have been few. But we have had to sever relationships with longstanding firms or attorneys due to their failure to provide prompt, effective and creative services, or their failure to provide them at an appropriate price. Loyalty has a place, but also a limit.

AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys wishing to switch to general counsel?
Tavi: Take the time to understand the expectations of general counsel generally, and the specific tendencies and expectations of company leadership. The qualifications for success for external counsel and general counsel are different. To be an effective general counsel, you need to be a business executive first and a lawyer second. You have to understand that your primary objective is to ensure that your business clients accomplish theirs. That requires a high risk tolerance and the ability to make tough decisions on complex issues – often relying upon advice of others but sometimes in the face of that advice. Rather than outlining options and attendant risks, you need to be able to advocate a particular course of action, stand behind it and accept the consequences. I have seen excellent lawyers struggle with these expectations and struggle with making a tough call when there is no ideal answer. They would not survive at a large corporation like Nissan.

AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys looking to win your business?
Tavi: If a new firm wants to win our business, their attorneys and their firms must demonstrate the understanding, qualities, experience and successes referenced in this article and provide an appropriate value equation for us.