Eleni Stathaki is the Head of Legal at Upstream, a leading end-to-end m-commerce provider for subscription-based digital services in developing markets. Prior to joining Upstream in 2010, Stathaki was as in-house counsel with Sonae Sierra between 2007 and 2010 and with AEGEK between 2002 and 2007. In 2006, she was also an intern in London with Lovells (now Hogan Lovells), while on training leave with AEGEK.
To start, can you tell our readers a bit about your career leading up to your current role?
E.S.: While in law school, I never thought I would end up as a law practitioner – I was envisaging a career as an academic. Then life happened. Very early on, I gravitated towards in-house work: first in a group of construction groups, dealing with public procurement and infrastructure works. Then, I moved to a shopping center management group, and lastly to Upstream, which is active in the mobile/digital industry. Incidentally, all three groups were active in South Eastern Europe and specifically in Romania.
I don’t see changing industries as a negative thing; on the contrary it keeps things interesting. In any case, regardless of the industry, the skills needed are the same anywhere: delivering practical, commercial legal advice in the business context.
As an m-commerce business, Upstream is almost by definition a very progressive company. How does the culture of such an organization influence the work of its in-house counsel?
E.S.: In a major way! Like other companies in this sector, Upstream has always been a very agile, fast paced, dynamic company, always looking for innovation. This agility is part of its corporate culture, so it could not leave Legal unaffected. As a result, I focus on being practical, commercially minded, and open to new ideas. Dealing with ambiguity is also another competency I have cultivated here. Upstream offers its services in more than 26 languages, and over 50 markets, each with its own special characteristics and requirements. What works in one market may not work in another.
Lawyers as a professional group are naturally cautious: when presented with a business proposition, normally my first impulse would be to say “No, this is risky.” But this attitude is counter-productive and would get us nowhere. So now the approach is more like: “Yes, under the following conditions.”
In the General Counsel Summit CEE Legal Matters recently hosted, one of the speakers from a progressive environment highlighted the fact that there is usually a lag between product development/R&D and regulators setting the “ground rules” for new products. How do you cope with this kind of ambiguity?
E.S.: This is, in fact, a situation that we have often dealt with. One of our first projects in Greece in 2005 was very new both in a commercial and in a regulatory sense and it caused quite a stir.
In most cases of a new product or solution, I find that either there is some legislation on the matter which has become obsolete or addresses a slightly different situation, or that there are detailed regulations in place, which however have not yet been tested in practice and on which there is no case law.
The answer in both instances is the same. We do our homework thoroughly and we get advice from experts. Then we find the middle ground between opting for the aggressive scenario and playing it safe. Ultimately, it is a fine line to walk and very challenging from a legal point of view, but our approach has worked so far!
As far as the legal function that you manage directly in Greece is concerned, what types of legal work keep you busiest?
E.S.: We mostly do contractual work, drafting, reviewing, and negotiating agreements of all kinds. As Upstream has a wide geographical footprint, and is active in over 50 markets, from Brazil to Vietnam, we make sure we get thorough legal advice on the regulatory environment in each country by coordinating with outside counsel. We also handle day-to-day corporate matters for the headquarters as well as all the subsidiaries, although we outsource complex transactional work.
Other than that, we work closely with Finance and Human Resources on all day-to-day matters from the opening of a bank account to helping with obtaining visas. Never a dull day!
For a company working in your field, data protection is probably a critical aspect. Does this influence your work at all or is it something that you leave to the tech team to worry about?
E.S.: A little bit of both: I tell the tech team what our obligations are and they find the appropriate security measures to comply with them, and to ensure that our technology platform that handles over 10 billion interactions a year meets these requirements.
Having reached over 1 billion consumers, and engaged over 200 million users around the world, we take data protection very seriously indeed. The fact that we are able to consistently deliver the highest engagement rates in the industry reflects our commitment to privacy protection. We have always been very careful, and as a result we have never had any issues. However, with the EU General Data Protection Regulation coming on, we will need to overhaul our policies to make sure they are up to speed. We have certainly planned to invest time and effort into this.
When you need to outsource legal work, what is the main criteria you use to select what external counsel you will use?
E.S.: As there are only three of us in the Legal Department, we do outsource specialized legal work quite often. There is no single criterion, but rather a combination of several: expertise, responsiveness, professionalism, business acumen. It is essential that counsel gives relevant advice, taking into consideration both commercial and business aspects. Last but not least, value for money is always important, as is keeping within budget.
After working with a law firm on a specific project, what are the main KPIs which you analyze to review the collaboration?
E.S.: Like I said, it’s a small department that is still evolving, so there are no strict KPIs. Instead, we review the firm’s overall performance. A key question is whether the firm gave timely, practical, and value-added advice, and whether they were responsive. I also appreciate it when counsel shows a constructive attitude vis-à-vis the issue at hand, especially in the context of corporate transactions and contract negotiations.
On the lighter side, what is your favorite item in your office?
E.S.: The global map that hangs on the wall. It is very exciting to see where the next project is, e.g. Mozambique or Peru. I have improved a lot in geography in the last five years!
This Article was originally published in Issue 2.5. of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here.
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