In-House Interview: Hande Karakülah, Legal & Scientific Director, L'Oréal
Since you graduated in 2000 from Istanbul University’s Faculty of Law, your career has varied from being a private practice lawyer to moving in-house. What prompted these changes and what were your motivations? Tell us about your professional background and aspirations.
I always wanted to be a lawyer. However, I didn't have a specific idea on what kind of lawyer I would be in the future. I wanted to experience my options. First, I started as a legal intern in a one of the then biggest law firms, I worked first as an intern and then as an associate. Later on, I opened my own practice with, three partners, one of which was my classmate from, master’s studies. I experienced being a partner in a very small law firm. So, I think I had a kind of, understanding about what private practice looks like. After leaving there, I joined British American Tobacco as legal counsel.
That was my first experience as an in-house, and I think it was a really great match to my personality and the way I wanted to do this job. The idea behind this, I really want to be hand in hand with my clients rather than giving them an opinion and then not knowing what the consequences of the opinion I shared were.
Instead, when you're an in-house lawyer, you live all the consequences together, whether it's a success or a failure and on the way, you have a chance to course correct or improve or stop all the initiatives that your business is taking based on your advice. So, I find it, more than companionship relationship rather than a client and lawyer relationship. I think that feeds me a lot as a lawyer. And also, I like to have this personal relationship with my clients.
I like to have the feeling of being in the same ship and making sure that it doesn't sink. So overall, after trying to be a private practitioner for a few years, I found myself falling in love with being an in-house lawyer.
What inspired you to become a lawyer?
I don't know whether it's a question of inspiration or a question of value, but I came to notice that justice has been one of my very important values, even when I was a kid. Therefore, I tend to think that I found my meaning in life when I decided to become a lawyer. But of course, there is a funny story behind, maybe we can consider this as a bit of inspiration.
I was a math and science student when I was at high school, and I was a successful one. My father is a computer engineer, and because I admire him a lot, I always, told I was going to be a computer engineer as well. But, when I was at last grade of the high school, there was this TV series called Ally McBeal.
It won’t mean anything to many young followers of this blog, but it was “The Suits” TV series of my times. There was this Ally character who is a young lawyer. She is very successful, very fierce, very passionate and also, having the, most good-looking boyfriends, etc.
She was my inspiration. I realized one night that I'm studying biology, chemistry, whatever, and then I'm going to bed, dreaming to become a lawyer like her. One morning, when I went to school, I went to the vice principal and told him that I want to change my class to social sciences class.He called my father. My father came to the school with his sweatpants on asking me what's going on? And I said, I want to become a lawyer. And he was like, “did you just decide on the spot, this morning?” Anyhow I changed my class and became a lawyer. That's the story part. However, I always, even when I was a kid, was the one who was making sure that during the games we play, everyone gets their fair chance, and in order. I now know that justice is one of my most important values and I was destined to be a lawyer.
What is the scope of your role as Legal & Scientific Director at L'Oréal? What personal and professional qualities have you found to be most useful in this role?
As the legal and scientific director of L’Oréal, I'm responsible for all the legal matters and corporate governance, contracts, disputes, compliance, related matters and all other things that any lawyer can guess. And on top as a scientific director, I'm also responsible for the scientific and regulatory processes of L’Oréal, such as making sure all of the products that we're selling are registered, managing inspections properly. We are responding to consumer complaints and claims. We are making sure that all the communication regarding our products is in line with the scientific data behind the efficiency of the products. So overall, I can say that I am responsible for all the regulatory processes regarding the products.
To be successful in such a role. I need to have a best team. And I do have a wonderful team of legal and scientific people.
What do you believe are the most important skills for lawyers to grasp business needs better and develop in order to succeed in-house?
This is a wonderful question, and to me, it's the key success driver for any in-house in any part of the world. I think the answer is quite straightforward. In order to grasp business needs better, you need to realize that you are in the same ship with all the businesspeople in your company. You need to understand your success is dependent on their success, and their success is dependent on yours.
You need to understand the feeling of camaraderie, as I said in a previous question. Once you realize you are not an outsider, you are not just a support function, you are actually at the heart of the business, and you have the tools and the power to make it or break it you come to a point that you work with the team in a very collaborative member.
I think the key is to understand that. This is a teamwork and all sides; the business and the support functions are dependent on each other. And, of course, it'll help a lot if you're working in an industry, in a company that you're interested in. I, for the last 11 years been working in cosmetics industry, and I tend to think myself as a cosmetic addict. So, I am really very much interested in what we do, the products that we design, the products that we manufacture, and the products that we communicate. And I'm also very emotional about the purpose of L’Oréal. I know that it works for the good of the community and, it helps a lot to make sure that, you are part of the bigger team instead of being a silo lawyer in your separate function.
What do you look for when recruiting a new team member? What do you believe are the fundamental skills for an in-house lawyer?
Obviously the first things first, I want the person to have an interest, curiosity, also the skills to be a lawyer. The fundamental knowledge should be there, that's for sure. And I want a person to be curious enough, to be excited enough to assume the role and have a kind of motivation within herself or himself to define herself in the role.
I always ask why that specific person wants to become a lawyer. I think that tells a lot about a person's future aspirations about our profession. And optimism, trusts in herself or himself and being a hardworking, ambitious person would be the cherry on top.
What advice would you provide to students who aspire to be successful lawyers?
My biggest advice would be to have the enthusiasm towards our profession and towards life. If they don't have an intellectual curiosity to fuel them. Try to find a way to trigger that intellectual curiosity, because as a lawyer, you have to be multifaceted. You have to know a lot of things, which may seem irrelevant at this point, but in life, you will see they will all become very much relevant and interconnected. So, I would really encourage them to find that inner strength and curiosity within them to explore new things. Even if those new things seem like they are not going to be beneficial for their professional life. I guarantee them that everything that they learn, every new topic that they explore, they will benefit in future. Life is strange in a very nice way.
So, whatever you put in to your pockets you will see that you will need them in life. And of course, be very social. Listen to people, talk to people, socialize. Make sure that you have nice connections with your teachers, with your professors at school. You will need them a lot in your career. Don't be shy to ask, to demand, to request things from your senior colleagues, from your classmates, from your friends. If you want to apply in a position, don't be shy. Go out there, send an email call. Do whatever you can to achieve your goals.
And, your New Year wishes?
2023 will be a wonderful year because it is 100 anniversary of our Republic. And, for so many reasons I am full of hope and optimism about this year. I am hoping that we will all together remember the optimism, the hope, the virtues that we have. And I'm hoping that we will, as lawyers, as the legal community, nourish the justice climate in our country. I'm hoping that the justice system will work better, and we will be seeing some verdicts from the courts that will reconstitute our belief in rule of law.
And other than that, I wish health, success and happiness to everyone.