One of the keys to the success of NH Hoteles has been to capitalise on the commonalities of the business and wider sector, says Group General Counsel Leopoldo Gonzalez-Echenique.
‘Our challenge as in-house lawyers is not to impose rules but to recognise and adopt common principals. To be able to take a sufficient overview of matters without entering into every last detail, which is what lawyers tend to do.’
The nine in house lawyer legal team is split across Spain, Italy and Mexico; in adition there are a number of external lawyers offering legal support to the company which operates across 22 countries. Nonetheless the work of the department is performed in a uniform way regardless of the lawyers physical location, he says.
‘We operate over 340 hotels around the world. There are inevitably local technicalities and legal differences across jurisdictions but as far as it is possible, and throughout the Group, we use standard contractual models, and terms and conditions, and within the legal team we all work in English.’
Such an approach, he says, enables the different elements of the legal department to have an input across the entire business. ‘What the legal team has found is that, regardless of geography, across the tourism industry, there are more similarities in the way in which we operate in different countries than differences.’
By drawing on the legal team’s distinct experiences we have established best practices that can more easily communicate the business reasoning behind strategic decisions.
‘When we are drafting a supply, distribution or hotel management agreement, for example, or looking to renegotiate the terms of a lease, it is important to be able to draw on the lessons learnt elsewhere. To be able to utilise our collective skills and experience to help the business achieve its end goals.’
In the current economic environment, such an approach is proving even more valuable, says Gonzalez-Echenique. Collectively, the legal team is better able to give the necessary support and comfort to those taking on-the-ground decisions.
‘It is very easy for a lawyer to say ‘that cannot be done’ or to state that under the terms of an agreement something is not allowed. I place a strong emphasis on creative thinking, both internally and externally, to find legal arguments that can support our business case, whatever it is.’
One of Gonzalez-Echenique’s key roles is therefore to co-ordinate the different legal teams and issues that arise. ‘It is important to be able to take a central view, to be able to recognise commonalities and to encourage them to be utilised more widely. This is not a hostile environment, people see the sense in adopting common practices, methodologies and systems.’
Where there are local legal teams almost all of the group’s day-to-day issues are handled internally, he explains. Major transactional or acquisition issues are usually outsourced. ‘In many respects we consider the law firms we work with as an extension of our own team, so they must be able to adapt to the ways that we already work, and to see the logic in the way we do things.’
He is proud of the legal team as it is currently comprised, but acknowledges the challenge of finding lawyers with the imagination and creativity to adopt such an approach and that are sufficiently comfortable operating in English.
‘Across our sphere of operation, this applies when we are looking to expand our own in-house capability as much as for the external law firms we use. The Group’s choice of external lawyers is driven by the same practical requirements: the need to understand our business, to work efficiently with us, and to think creatively to find the necessary answers.’
Such an approach is not necessarily a top down exercise, he emphasises. ‘As a listed company we inevitably face regulatory issues, but broadly the tourism sector is relatively open and flexible. Our goal is simple, to be able to take what we learn from one place and see the wisdom in applying it elsewhere.’