This month, we speak with Catherine Kardinal, general counsel for Siemens in Hong Kong, about the importance of finding a company culture that fits one’s lifestyle, the challenge of getting support from management on legal advice as an in-house counsel and how being a company lawyer can be similar to being a psychologist.

Private practice to in-house roles

After studying business and engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, Kardinal pursued a law degree from Georgetown University in 1999. She was drawn to Chinese legal development with the rapid changes happening to the country and joined Baker & McKenzie’s China Practice Group to advise clients on foreign direct investment into China. The going was tough and it wasn’t exactly what Kardinal wanted. “I was getting tired of working late nights and weekends,” says Kardinal. “I wasn’t keen on the partnership track, but was more interested in being involved in a business.” An in-house career followed, first at Emerson Electric in 2008 and PwC in 2011 before Siemens recruited her.

Catherine Kardinal

Working at Siemens

As an in-house counsel who manages a team of seven and a mother to a one and three-year old, she has to be efficient at what she does. “I can get home on time, but am on emails and calls after work,” says Kardinal. “Some of us want to have it all, but I think you can’t have it all at the same time. You have to work hard to balance work and family and be great at what you do to earn that balance.  It’s a constant work in progress.” She also stresses the importance of finding a company culture that fits one’s lifestyle. For her, she wanted to find a company that respects its staff and incorporates a family-friendly culture into the work environment.  She found that at Siemens. “Some women choose not to bring out their womanhood and tone down on what they share about their families, but I am quite open about my family life and feel comfortable doing so at Siemens,” says Kardinal.

Kardinal founded the Women’s Network at Siemens in Hong Kong, which aims to bring up the next generation of women leaders at the company through mutual support and sharing. “I want to let my female colleagues know that they are valued,” says Kardinal. “In an engineering company, there are few women, especially at the most senior levels.  I think women who are already in senior positions have a responsibility to make a difference.”

Challenges of being an in-house counsel

In her role as general counsel, Kardinal covers Siemens’ Hong Kong and Macau operations, advising the business on matters ranging from tendering and contracting negotiations to M&A, compliance investigations and disputes.  

“Businesses are nervous about China and this puts lawyers and business people under the microscope,” says Kardinal. “Mainland China poses more of a challenge for compliance issues than Hong Kong, but the biggest challenge for me in Hong Kong has always been the pace of business.  This is a dynamic, fast-moving city.  I always feel like things were due yesterday and nothing’s ever finished.”

Dealing with the expectations of internal and external clients can be difficult, as is getting support from the business, but Kardinal likes challenges. “There are a lot of soft skills involved,” says Kardinal. “I liken my job to that of a shrink, you have to be patient, you have to care and you have to listen.”

Unlike in private practice where clients are mostly other lawyers, it is important for in-house counsels to help the business understand what lawyers do and prove their value-add.  Thus, networking is essential. “I spent my first year developing relationships and trust, both in Hong Kong and with the German headquarters” recalls Kardinal. “However, when faced with difficult issues where interests may not align, I can’t be a best friend to everyone and have to remain impartial in order to act in the best interest of the company.  It’s a fine line to tread.”

Kardinal is combining her interest in engineering, business and law to help society through her participation in the Green Business Task Force within the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), which comes up with policy proposals on sustainable business for the UN. Thinking about the future, when her children are a bit older and she has more time, Kardinal hopes to teach.  She especially wants to share her experience of being an in-house counsel with the next generation of lawyers and help young people realise their potentials.