“Be fearless to hold a mirror up to yourself and accept the person who you are, to admit that you have shortcomings but work hard to improve where needed, to get into unknown worlds, to take chances, to take accountability, to experience challenges joyfully, and more importantly to fail.”
Faizal Latheef is the Regional Legal Counsel (Middle East & Africa), AbbVie. AbbVie Inc. is a leading pharmaceutical company headquartered in North Chicago, Illinois.
Q1. To begin with, kindly tell us a bit about yourself and your journey in the profession.
I am a lawyer by choice and passion. I started my career as a litigation lawyer in Kochi 25 years back. After about 7 years, I relocated to Dubai to focus on transactional matters. Since then, my practice primarily focussed on foreign investment, joint ventures and mergers and acquisitions. I was blessed to associate with some of the best names in the industry including Baker McKenzie, which gave me the opportunity to work on a myriad of high-stake transactions involving large multinational corporations and worth billions of dollars.
In 2018, I moved in-house with AbbVie, one of the leading pharma corporations in the world. I very much enjoyed private practice and never thought that I would move in-house one day. However, my perspectives changed when I got the opportunity to lead AbbVie’s spin-off from Abbott in 2013, on a secondment from Baker. The assignment challenged me in many ways — the sheer magnitude of the spin-off which involved USD 19 billion, regulations surrounding pharma industry, need to find business solutions, cultural differences — all pushed me to uncomfortable zones. These years stretched me as a lawyer and helped me to understand what happens on the other side of the fence. In the process, I was also fascinated by the people, culture and vision of AbbVie. I continued my relationship with AbbVie as an external counsel, and after a few years, I made one of the most important decisions in my career to join in-house.
In summary, I had an amazing professional journey. My experiences, good, bad and ugly, shaped me the person who I am today and helped me reach this space — where I am comfortable to be my true self. I enjoy being here.
Q2. When did you decide to pursue law and what were your motivations? Did you always know what you wanted to do, or did you take things as they came in your career?
I always wanted to be a lawyer, and thought I had a few skills which could make me a successful lawyer. However, being a first-generation lawyer from a middle class family in a small town in Kerala, I had no clue as to how to become a lawyer or build a successful career. In the initial years, I went with the flow, and it was only about hard work.
What transformed me was my relocation to Dubai. With many of the large international law firms and multinational corporations and a great business friendly ecosystem, Dubai offered me great possibilities to redefine me. It exposed me to different cultures; gave me the opportunity to work with world renowned names, meet with some incredible people, lead high-stake transactions; and all these combined gave me enormous confidence to have crazy dreams.
I am always fascinated by the seamless potential of people and some of those incredible leaders I have met with gave me the courage to take risks in life and not be afraid to fail. This guidance has always inspired me in my journey.
Q3. After practising in Cochin for about 7 years, you moved to Dubai to focus on transactions. How did that come about? What prompted your move?
It was not a planned one, and it occurred out of desperation. In early 2003, I met with a near fatal car accident. I suffered fractures on my skull and backbone, and my tongue was punctured. I could not speak for a while, and I was bedridden for months. I tried hard to come back but failed miserably. In the process, I lost three years and I had to find a way to survive and feed my family. I heard from someone that “Dubai is a great place for lawyers” and all on a sudden, I decided to leave India and explore my fortunes in Dubai.
With hardly any contacts in Dubai and with no knowledge of the market, I struggled for about a year before opportunities unfolded in a magical way. But I must say that these years after the accident taught me the value of life and how precious it is. Lying down on the bed like a vegetable, with all your dreams shattered and with an unknown future is frightening. This is my second life and I want to make each moment count. I now realise, with all its challenges, life is amazing.
Q4. What differences have you found in working with a law firm as an associate and working as an in-house lawyer for a corporation?
I spent a considerable amount of time in private practice before moving in-house with a biopharmaceuticals corporation. Pharma industry is one of the most regulated industries in the world, and being in the biopharmaceuticals space is even more challenging in view of the nature of products and the financial value involved.
I felt that the in-house role is more demanding since I am required to find holistic and sustainable solutions for the business. This process is challenging as I often meet with ambiguous situations where I am short of facts and lack legal precedence. There could be other pressures too in the form of time, market dynamics, competition, etc. Your legal credentials may not be sufficient to give you a safe landing here. In order to successfully navigate these, you will also need a solid understanding of your business, market dynamics and excellent leadership skills – ability to connect with people and build relations, finding a common ground, foster trust, enjoy being challenged, willingness to take risks, absorb pressure, inspire others, courage to fail, etc.
The private practice role offers you a little more safer space as you are in the role of an “advisor” and you are mostly away from the danger zone.
Q5. How would you say a law student should make a decision on whether to join a law firm, to be an in-house lawyer, or to litigate?
This is an excellent question. I believe it all depends upon one’s character, capabilities, priorities and more importantly, what would you enjoy. I did not enjoy litigation practice much because it required certain traits which I did not have, or I did not want to develop. I enjoyed my corporate practice days since it suited my personality — organised, structured, focused, time-bound, complex mandates, people engagement, etc.
And now, I simply love my in-house role with AbbVie as it is giving me the opportunity to be my true self. We have a truly amazing culture with people challenging each other, open to taking risks and failure, courageous to acknowledge one’s vulnerabilities and fantastic opportunities to grow. Here, I am encouraged to take an active role in business projects and find solutions to complex business problems. This forces me to think differently and deviate from the usual path a lawyer is trained to look at, which I thoroughly enjoy.
So, I would encourage our youngsters to reflect on this and identify what they actually enjoy. Work is an important element of your life, and you will need to find a space which makes you excited, happy and contented. You must be thrilled when you think about Mondays and mornings.
Q6. If a law student studying in an Indian university wishes to pursue a legal career in the Middle East, what would you suggest to them?
The first thing I would say is “Dubai is a city of dreams”. With many of the large international law firms and multinational corporations, the Middle East, particularly, the UAE offers great possibilities for a lawyer to build a flourishing career. Having said that they must also keep in mind that the path is not rosy either as there is no dearth for talented lawyers here.
We all have different capabilities, ambitions and aspirations, and I suggest that you wisely choose your path and prepare well for the journey. Today, we have a myriad of top-notch law schools in India, and this means that most of the law graduates are academically and technically solid when they start their career. What I would like to emphasise on is the importance of human skills – this could be the decisive factor.
Also, another factor that could shape your career in the Middle East is your first job. You must be careful about a few things like location, employer and role because it may not be easy to change your career path. In order to have the luxury to choose, you will have to equip yourself with a good understanding of the target market, an attractive resume and a reasonably good contact list. I would suggest that you start preparing yourself at least six months in advance, and this will give you a significant edge when you start your job search.
Q7. Please tell us how networking has helped you in your career. Kindly give the readers a few tips on how to network better.
I have immensely benefited from my networking skills, though I was never conscious about it. I came to Dubai as a failed person and empty-handed. The only thing I had with me was some insane dreams, a fearless attitude and loads of perseverance. I made conscious efforts in connecting with new people and building relations. I can proudly say that most of my opportunities, including AbbVie came out of networking.
Networking is one of the most underrated qualities when we talk about human skills. In simple terms, networking is all about meeting with people and building relationships. We do this every day, in every aspect of our lives, mostly unknowingly. If we become a little more focussed and structured, each of us can excel in networking. A few tips that have helped me are: reaching out to people with a genuine intent to connect, willingness to listen and know them, being authentic, offering help, tolerance to differing views, staying updated in my practice areas and conscious efforts to maintain relations. If someone is not comfortable with large gatherings or speaking in a conference, start with one-on-one conversations and slowly expand your comfort zone.
I love psychology, and if you understand the concept that the person next to you is like you only — with certain strengths, certain areas of improvement, and certain fears, insecurities and vulnerabilities — you will never feel uncomfortable meeting with anyone. Networking can bring magical changes to your life.
Q8. If you were to single out a skill as absolutely essential to succeed as a lawyer, what would that be?
In any aspect of life, including career, I believe we require a set of skills to succeed, and there is no magical “single skill” that can bring holistic success. Nevertheless, if I am required to mention one, I would say “being fearless”. This one trait has helped me greatly in my journey – to face life’s challenges, to navigate the unknown zones, to slowly become comfortable with them, and then, at some point in life, to excel in the journey.
If you want to succeed in life, it is critical that you be fearless. Be fearless to hold a mirror up to yourself and accept the person who you are, to admit that you have shortcomings but work hard to improve where needed, to get into unknown worlds, to take chances, to take accountability, to experience challenges joyfully, and more importantly to fail. I often see that people are afraid of failure and hence, they always stick to their comfort zones.You do not grow an inch in your comfort zones, so shatter them and expand your horizons. It is okay to fail, and if you fail try again and one day you will certainly succeed.
Q9. Finally, do you have any words of advice for young law students? Is there anything you would like to share with our readers?
I meet with a lot of youngsters, particularly young lawyers. At AbbVie, we also have a platform to mentor young lawyers from under-represented communities across the world (“Young Lawyers Mentoring Program”, in association with Baker Mckenzie), which I lead. From my experience, today’s youngsters are much more advanced than people of my generation at our younger ages. They are more knowledgeable, have better technical skills and have the added benefit of advanced technology.
One area where I suggest them to focus on a little more is, human skills. Some of the traits I mentioned earlier in this interview are simply magical and they can take you anywhere you wish. Life is full of amazing opportunities.
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