Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law The Journal: Transactions & Business (PLJ) recently spoke to Elizabeth Matthews, Deputy Managing Director, Executive Vice President, and General Counsel of TotalEnergies (US), about becoming a true partner to the company and how the law department transitioned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
PLJ: How is the legal function structured?
Matthews: TotalEnergies’ businesses in the US are diverse, including exploration and production, renewable energy, refining and chemicals, gas and power, marketing and services, and trading and shipping, so the legal function is divided into groups of attorneys dedicated to each individual business. There are also groups of attorneys in legal specialty practice areas (such as intellectual property, litigation, compliance, and health, safety, and environment), which provide support across the various US businesses.
PLJ: What are the top goals or areas of focus for the law department?
Matthews: Our top goal is providing excellent, efficient, and cost-effective legal support to all of the company’s US businesses. We focus on being viewed as true partners who maintain a genuine interest and curiosity in the businesses that we support. We aim to understand how we can add value and help our clients realize their strategic objectives.
PLJ: How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted the way the law department operates?
Matthews: I have been impressed by how seamlessly the law department has transitioned to providing legal support remotely, often while balancing additional obligations at home, such as homeschooling kids while the schools were remote. Since many of our attorneys started their careers at law firms, remotely advising a client comes quite naturally to our team.
PLJ: How does the law department avoid being perceived as the “office of no” while still ensuring it helps the client avoid liability?
Elizabeth Matthews, GC of TotalEnergies (US)
Matthews:Our goal is to help the business achieve its goals without taking on excessive legal risk. Our attorneys pride themselves not only on understanding the law, but also on developing a deep understanding of our business goals and strategy. We engage with our business clients as early as possible, and help them analyze the legal risks associated with a given matter. We also propose less risky alternatives where practicable.
PLJ: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Matthews: Be true to yourself, do not be afraid to take chances, and do not try to do everything perfectly. That last item is especially important when balancing being a General Counsel with being a mom to three kids.
PLJ: What advice would you give to a prospective General Counsel?
Matthews: Attorneys considering a General Counsel path should view their career as a marathon, not a sprint. Develop a breadth of legal experience, either within your current role or by changing roles over time. Do not be afraid to make one or more lateral moves to round out your experience, or to take on a new role that does not fit a clear career path. Say yes to new opportunities.
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