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Jonathan O’Brien

General Counsel
4Life Direct

What is your specific role, and what does this entail?

I am the general counsel for 4Life Direct, an insurance intermediary operating in Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Greece. I am responsible for all legal, compliance and regulatory matters across the group. This consists of managing day-to-day operational issues, assistance with implementing business strategies and marketing campaigns, advising on new corporate structures, and overseeing data protection and privacy matters.

How is the legal team structured locally and globally?

As each company within the group is at a different stage in terms of size and maturity, the legal and compliance requirements and demands differ from country to country. Each country consists of an internal legal and compliance team, which is complemented by our external counsel. In some of the more developed countries, we have a number of external counsel on the panel, offering a range of expertise.

What are the key challenges and opportunities facing your legal team at the moment?

Given the heavily regulated insurance market in which we operate, much of my focus is on the changing legislation in the respective countries, and with the introduction of the GDPR scheduled for May 2018, we are charged with reviewing how we process and protect personal data across the group. However, for every challenge there is an opportunity to strengthen our offering to customers.

Are there unique challenges for your legal team in dealing with multiple jurisdictions or cross-border business? Do you have an international panel?

Although the legal system across Europe is based on the same principles, grounded in both European and local law, the local perspective and attitudes of the local authorities differ greatly, which in itself presents difficulties when attempting to streamline processes across five member states. As a rule of thumb, should one country have higher requirements in respect of a particular matter over another country, we adopt those higher requirements in all to ensure the highest level of compliance throughout the business.

How significant are legal issues in your company’s international strategy?

The business has a strong ethical and compliance culture, which has been present from the commencement of its operation. The ever changing regulatory environment across Europe means that no new strategy can be adopted without also considering the legal implications. It is vital therefore for the in-house lawyer to be involved at the very beginning of any new business decision, to highlight the initial potential risks, and to allow for compliance to complement the implementation process rather than being disruptive or problematic.

When would you typically enlist external counsel rather than doing the work in-house?

For me, external counsel provide flexibility and expertise. We use external counsel whenever we do not have the knowledge or resources internally. They also act as an independent sounding board when evaluating risks from both a legal and a business perspective.

How do you instruct external counsel domestically and internationally?

We have trusted local advisers in each country, most of whom have supported us from the early stages of the business’s formation. Although I attempt to meet with them regularly, given the international nature of the business, it is difficult to arrange face-to-face meetings; but most of our external advisers facilitate videoconferencing, which demonstrates their ability to meet their client’s requirements and needs. E-mails would nevertheless be the most common form of communication.

What are the key elements in making a decision about which external counsel to hire?

The most important criteria when selecting external counsel are their knowledge of the industry, their business acumen and commerciality when dispensing legal advice, and their adherence to agreed timelines. As a first port of call we will always seek a recommendation from our existing panel for a new law firm before reverting to directories and other means. 

What are your best and worst experiences in hiring external counsel?

We are fortunate to have excellent external counsel on our panel, and what makes them different is their knowledge of, and commitment to, the success of our business. Their ability to provide creative and dynamic advice is also highly valued.

On the other hand, advice that is more academic in nature with no real grasp of the commercial reality provides little or no value to the business. It often causes ambiguity in terms of the scope of the advice resulting in delays and, ultimately, increased costs for a particular project. Failure to meet deadlines, without a justifiable reason, can call into question a firm’s capability and professionalism.

What makes a great in-house counsel?

In terms of ability, in-house counsel must have a strong general knowledge of all areas of law but be cautiously aware of their own limitations and know when to seek advice. Secondly, it is paramount to be a good communicator. You must be embedded within every department of the business, to gain their trust and in turn educate them of their legal requirements so that they become equipped to know when to escalate potential risks. Lastly, enjoy and be passionate about the work that you do and strive to continuously do it better.

4Life Direct

  • HQ Location: London, United Kingdom
  • Industry/sector: Insurance
  • Year of foundation: 2008
  • Number of employees: 400+
  • Company reach: London, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Bratislava and Athens
  • Visit website

All statements and opinions expressed herein are those of the individual and not the organisation.

Published February 2018

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