Corporate Counsel Insights: Geoff David, Rio Tinto



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Question 1: You have an interesting background, having been a partner at a major law firm and now, of course, you're in-house.
United States Corporate/Commercial Law
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In our next interview of "Corporate Counsel Insights," we met with Geoff David, General Counsel, Minerals, at Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto is a leading global mining and materials company.

"Corporate Counsel Insights" is an interview series featuring conversations with leading general counsel and in-house lawyers. The series provides an inside look at the role of modern legal departments and shares insights from prominent general counsel and in-house experts.

To watch the full interview with Geoff, click here. To view our previous interviews, please click on our participants names: Scott Corrigan of Standard Chartered Bank and Tammy Albarrán of Peloton.

Question 1: You have an interesting background, having been a partner at a major law firm and now, of course, you're in-house. How would you compare the two roles? What's the biggest similarity and the biggest difference between them? The obvious commonality between both roles is that we provide legal advice. The biggest difference between outside and in-house counsel is the lens through which you're looking at a problem. As outside counsel, you're oftentimes further away from the final decision-making that takes place in a case investigation. It's more sanitized in terms of what you're actually dealing with, and you don't get a sense of the problems that the business is actually facing, or as we like to say in our industry, at the "coal face." As in-house counsel, we're saying, okay, who are our internal stakeholders? How could this decision impact the rest of our business, not just in the micro problem of whatever litigation we're doing in whatever jurisdiction but is there any potential for this to impact in other jurisdictions, not just in a litigation standpoint, but how a government or a community or a non-governmental organization might actually be impacted or react to whatever we're doing or whatever stance we're taking. One of the major value-adds, I think, of a strong in-house council is actually knowing the network and being able to tie those different pieces together.

Question 2: What would you say is the single-largest challenge you're facing right now in your job?

I think the hardest bit in any organization, which is not unique to Rio Tinto, are ever-present cost pressures. In the last three years, we've seen increased inflation and increased rates not just in the legal industry, but across the board. We're all right-sizing the economy and trying to figure out our direction forward globally. Determining how to operate responsibly, while still delivering the product in the same quality, and doing it in a very cost-effective way is one of the bigger challenges that I think we are currently facing. That said, we're well equipped and have the diligence to be able to deliver product to our stakeholders in a fiscally responsible way.

Question 3: Most people would say we're in an active regulatory environment, especially in the U.S. What would you say is your biggest challenge in this current environment?

As a global mining company, we operate in over 30 different countries. With all those different countries and locations, we have different regulatory schemes we need to adapt to, as well as the communities and varying stakeholders we're working with. Each of those brings a different layer of complexity, and especially amidst heightened risk. Additionally, the ever-changing world of compliance has evolved over the last 20-30 years, and what we've seen recently is an increase in diligence from different governments as they implement new regimes in their countries, adding another layer of complexity. The biggest challenge is staying on top of those changes and making sure that we're operating in their best practices because sometimes you find that the Venn diagram doesn't necessarily 100% overlap. For example, if you're trying to comply with a particular government's laws, you might be maybe upsetting the applecart elsewhere, especially when you're working with the local community. It's essential to balance those two pieces as you move forward and ensure you're putting your best foot forward on both sides.

Question 4: What strategies have you found most effective for managing and mitigating compliance and risk globally?

We have a great chief compliance officer who deals with this daily, and I deal with it mostly on the back end. When we're advising the front end on compliance issues on the legal side, my approach is to focus on culture. Rio Tinto's CEO usually says, "culture eats strategy for breakfast," which I find to be true because you can have the best guidelines, best procedures, best policies, but unless you actually bring them to life through a good culture, it's impossible to implement within a 50,000-person company, which we are. It's about trying to reinforce and to encourage people to be courageous in what they need to stand up for, doing the right thing, and showing care when they're doing it. Especially as attorneys, we must have a strong backbone, very principled way of going about it, while also showing that we're empathetic in the way that we're focusing on problems because the various people that we work with across the globe might see them differently. Certain issues may percolate in the U.S. or the U.K. or Australia, based on different regulatory environments that are entirely different from some of the other countries in which we operate. I think the thread that carries us through all of that is a strong culture in the way that we operate as a company.

Question 5: Having touched on your international scope and the mining industry, there are obviously a lot of intricacies. How important is it for you to not only stay on top of Rio Tinto's business, but also the legal and political landscapes and all the different jurisdictions around the world where you operate?

It's a critically important piece, in addition to the value-add of a strong legal governance and compliance team at any company. Staying on top of that is very important but it is so complicated. It's intricate so we have different teams that are complementary in what we do. We have our legal team that focuses solely on front end laws that might be implemented. We also have a strong external affairs team that's working with governments to make sure that we're staying on top of the laws that are going to be put in place, whether it's working with non-government entities, our partners or other industry groups to make sure that we have an idea of what the best practice is going forward so we're not surprised by anything. It's an ever-evolving political landscape and must keep an eye on it, whether it's where we're actually operating a mine, a smelter, or selling our products.

Question 6: What advice would you give someone just starting an in-house job in terms of how to be valued by the rest of the senior business and leadership team as opposed to being viewed as just a lawyer, who's come from a law firm?

I think that's always going to be difficult. The way that lawyers are viewed in different jurisdictions is very, very different. While in the U.S. we might have a one opinion of what a lawyer might bring to the table which might be very different perception someplace else. Like dealing with most anything else, be humble. You don't know everything and certainly coming into the business from an external counsel point of view, you don't. Be curious and don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to dig into the detail and understand and figure out what your value add is and where you can really help. Always make it about the business; make it about the greater good and not about yourself.

Question 7: We'll close with a fun question. With business all over the world, including in some exotic locations, what's the best or most interesting travel destination you've visited? Also, I've seen the large Tonka trucks that your industry uses. I'm curious if you've ever ridden in one of those?

I have never ridden in one of the giant trucks, but they're quite amazing as far as just a feat of engineering alone, let alone the mines that we build and operate around the globe. But those trucks and the automated trains are just mind-blowing as far as the advancements of science and technology there. As far as the travel question, we operate in some very exotic locations in Africa, South America, and in Australia. But I haven't been able to visit any of our locations in Africa yet because of COVID. So far, the best location I've traveled to would probably be in Australia. I had the great opportunity of visiting one of our Pilbara mines there and took a tour of some of our indigenous sites. The way that we're partnering with the indigenous populations in Western Australia is cool to see. I was born in Texas, and grew up in New York, so to be halfway around the world, in a completely different culture is foreign in the way that. Regardless of cultural differences, the thing that binds us together is that we're all people.

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