Ekin Sungur is the Head of Legal at BNP Paribas Cardif Turkey. She received her law degree from Galatasaray University in 2004, and then received an LL.M. from the University of Paris I: Pantheon Sorbonne in 2005. She then started her professional career with two and a half years at Moroglu Arseven Ozdemir before moving over to Gide Loyrette Nouel, where she spent the next three years. She then moved in-house with Akkok Sanayi Yatirim ve Gelistirme for a little more than a year, before joining BNP Paribas Cardif in February of 2012.
Can you describe your career path leading up to your current role?
E.S.: Following my graduation from Galatasaray University, I obtained a scholarship from the French Government and went to France to pursue a master’s degree at the Sorbonne University in international private law and international commercial law.
Before starting my career in Turkey, my main objective was to work for either a foreign law firm or a local law firm with international clients. After submitting my thesis on the law applicable to e-contracts and obtaining a second master’s degree, I returned to Turkey and started to work for a local law firm. At the same time I completed my compulsory internship and got my bar license. At that time Moroglu Arseven was a local boutique law firm, so I had the opportunity to work directly with the partners and also take responsibility for and an active role in all major projects (i.e., m&a, due diligence practice, contracts, litigation, arbitration). Afterwards, I continued my career at an international law firm, where I had the opportunity to be a part of cross-border transactions as consultant and work in an international environment with standardized service levels. My years spent at Gide Loyrette Nouel developed my professional and client management skills significantly, as our clients were top companies in their sectors and satisfying their needs required significant presentation/legal drafting skills.
After 3 years at GLN, I wanted to enter into a new challenge as in-house at Akkok, a holding company consisting of 17 companies with different operating scopes, such as aviation, insurance, carbon-fiber industry, energy, and construction – among which there were also quoted companies. Being at the center of this delicate structure allowed me to observe the backstage of the companies and discover their needs when working with external lawyers. When practicing as external consultant, sometimes the real needs of clients can be overlooked, but when practicing as in-house you are at the heart of the company and understand better the mechanisms triggering the needs for legal advice, so it is easier to provide legal services matching exactly with the needs of the companies.
I believe that this position at Akkok was very important in my career path leading me to my current position. After experiencing the in-house practice at Akkok, I told myself that I was ready for a decision-maker position in-house and I started to look for a company which would match my profile. Then I was informed that Cardif was in search of a Head of Legal for its Turkey entities. Although I had had numerous clients operating in the insurance business, I was more of a multi-practitioner than an insurance law specialist. Even so, I applied and got the position after series of interviews. My first year was quite challenging as I was both learning the business and establishing the legal department from scratch, but once the department was functioning with all local policies, service levels, archive, etc., I began to receive the fruits of my hard work.
Was your plan always to move in-house, or was there something specific about the opportunities at Akkok and then BNP Paribas Cardif that drove your decision?
E.S.: When I decided to work in-house, my main objective was to discover the other side of the legal world. I wanted to centralize my legal experience to one and only client and also evaluate whether the service provided by law firms/external lawyers was effective. In addition, I wanted to discover and get a better understanding of the financial/commercial reasons leading the companies to take strategic decisions. Mostly, law schools do not give us the necessary vision to evaluate the economic reasons behind the transactions that we face during our careers. Without having a good perspective, it is not always possible to provide your clients with effective legal advice. Being in a company, especially working for big groups like Akkok and BNP Paribas, gave me the chance to work with experienced professionals having deep expertise in different areas of the business, and I can say that the knowledge acquired this way is as important as the academic background. Now I don’t limit myself to legal expertise only, and I give priority to the commercial effect of my advice.
Do you miss any elements of private practice?
E.S.: In our job, multi-practice is a key element as well as specialization. Sometimes I miss working in very original projects that I have no legal expertise in. However, I think the difference between private practice and working as in-house is also related mainly to your working principles. Coming from a private practice background, I consider each and every department of the company as a different client. I have adapted the service standards I gained from private practice to in-house life. Accordingly, the way I work has not changed significantly between different career paths.
CEELM: How large is your legal team at BNP Paribas Cardif and how is it structured? Do you tend to specialize your team members or try to rotate them to develop them as generalist professionals?
E.S.: Currently we are a small sized department with 3 people. When establishing the department, first I internalized all of the services in order to evaluate the work load and determine in a better way which areas we needed external assistance in. I think being specialized in one area is important, but having a general knowledge of all aspects of the company is also very important as you face all kind of legal matters. Hence, I try to make a balance between them.
When you hire lawyers for your team, do you prefer them to come from other insurance company, or from a private practice background? Why?
E.S.: When hiring a new lawyer former experience is important, and having a lawyer with insurance law knowledge can ease his/her adaptation to our companies and may give me comfort. However I think that the most important thing is to put your heart into your job. We are doing a very difficult job where there is no limit in learning – and especially in Turkey the legal environment changes so quickly. After a certain point, vis-a-vis these quick and sudden changes, your previous experience become worthless. Accordingly, the ideal team member for me should have an eagerness to succeed and enjoy the complexity and legal gaps by starting each working day with a desire to learn like an inexperienced trainee, with the ability to quickly adapt to new developments.
With only seven years of legal experience under your belt since you passed the bar in 2007, you’re fairly young to be the Head of Legal at an international company. Did your youth present any challenges or opportunities?
E.S.: In our job, whether you practice as a private lawyer or in-house, you become valuable and credible with your age. Hence being a young lawyer is always challenging vis-a-vis your clients. In order you prove yourself and gain their confidence, you should work very hard, evaluate all aspects of a matter delegated to you, be sure of yourself and take responsibility for your acts. Everyone faces difficult times at all stages of professional life. I think what is important – and what mostly comes with age – is the way you handle crisis situations. The sooner you learn to react in such situations, the better you become in your career. A Head of Legal position requires being both prudent/risk averse and the possession of speedy decision-making skills. I think my head position in Turkey was a great opportunity for me to improve my professional skills and take advantage of the dynamism of my age; I took each challenge as an opportunity.
According to internal customer satisfactions survey conducted in 2014, our legal department is ranked above the average satisfaction level of companies in the areas of work quality and general satisfaction – and was elected as the most successful department of this company. This result also shows that I managed to transform the challenges of my youth into opportunities.
When you outsource legal work, what are the main criteria you use in picking the firms you will be working with? Do you have a panel – or does the BNP Paribas HQ guide your use of external counsel – or do you select your firms on a project-specific basis?
E.S.: According to BNP Paribas Cardif group procedures, we have a panel consisting of a list of international law firms having global service agreements with BNP Paribas Group. The choice of the law firm is made locally once the outsourcing decision is made. My main criteria in choosing the law firm to assist us is their expertise. For each topic that we need external advice on, I do market research before making my decision. Respect for the deadlines and working with dedicated people also are very important for me. We collaborate with local law firms after getting the approval of the Head Office as well. In specific local matters, especially which do not require the involvement of the headquarters, working with the local offices is more advantageous as they have more local contacts and knowledge and are cost effective.
From a legislative stand-point, what are the recent or upcoming changes that will impact or have impacted your work the most?
E.S.: Turkey may be considered a developing country in the field of its regulatory environment. On the one side, new laws are still being enacted to adapt the legal system to European standards – while on the other side, the side effects of these newly-implemented rules result in sudden system changes. Because of this unstable environment, we are obliged to adapt ourselves quickly to new requirements. Furthermore, these changes influence case law as well, and following the position of the courts while applying such legal provisions is also critical. For my practice, the entry into force of the New Commercial Code (although it has been two years) and the new Consumer Protection Law are the most important changes in our sector. Now we are awaiting the enacting of secondary legislation in line with these laws which will enlighten our practice.
On the lighter side, what’s your favorite place in Istanbul, and why?
E.S.: My favorite place in Istanbul is Buyukada (big island), the biggest of the prince islands in the Sea of Marmara. Once you take the ferry leading you to this magical place, you are totally detached from busy city life and you find yourself in a untouched peaceful place with no traffic (the only transportation is horse drawn carriages and bicycle), pine forests, cats, and beautiful historic buildings. I am especially fond of the island in autumn when the island becomes almost deserted. Each time I visit the island, I find some hidden places to discover.
This Article was originally published in Issue 2.1. 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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