My-Hué Tan in Portrait
"Make every little step and interaction count. Be daring. Stay curious!"
My-Hué Tan, Counsel and Operations Director at MANGEAT, on bonding with international clients from diversified industries, driving the necessary changes of the culture and values in law firms and advocating for practical and business orientated mind-sets in legal services.
Dear My-Hué, you worked in international law firms in France and in the UK, as in-house counsel for Cisco in France and Belgium and for Eaton in the Europe Middle East & Africa region. Since 2020, you have returned to private practice and joined MANGEAT in Geneva. Why did you get into law in the first place?
I became a lawyer “by accident”. When I was a teenager, my family and I got into a car accident in France. Being immigrants from Vietnam, my parents were not fluent in French and the driver, who had caused the accident, filed an accident report attributing the cause to my dad whereas our car was damaged. As a result, the insurance company treated us unfairly and we had to bear the brunt of the financial consequences. I felt a sense of injustice and it was very frustrating to be blatantly abused and to realize that we were not able to properly defend our rights. This was the moment when I decided that I wanted to study law.
When did you and your parents move to France and how was it for you growing up in Paris?
I was born in Vietnam, as were my parents. My grandparents were originally from China, moved to Vietnam in the early 20th Century, and settled in as part of the overseas Chinese community in Saigon. Following the end of the Vietnam war and the fall of Saigon in 1975, the USA evacuated their civilian and military personnel from Saigon. Like many other South Vietnamese civilians, my family also fled Vietnam in 1978, fearing political oppression, asset confiscation, and continued civil war. This massive exodus of refugees was an international humanitarian crisis known as the “Vietnamese boat people” in the late 70s-80s’. My family and other refugees were very fortunate to have been rescued thanks to the humanitarian initiative of Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without borders) / Médecins du Monde NGO led by Dr. Bernard Kouchner and other renowned French people.
We settled in France in 1979. Through a refugee integration program, we started a new life from scratch and integrated into French society. We lived in several towns in France and thanks to my parents’ sacrifice and hard work, we eventually moved to Paris when I started junior high school.
Unlike other refugees, I have been fortunate to grow up in privileged French neighbourhoods, which has hugely contributed to my successful integration into French society and culture. It also gave me access to a solid education at reputable schools.
You completed an extraordinary and challenging education. What gave you the idea to apply for the “École Normale Supérieure de Cachan” (ENS Cachan), which is one of the most selective and prestigious educational paths in France and even worldwide? How was your experience?
Before I graduated from high school, my education counsellor advised me to find “something special”. He recommended that I enrol in a double cursus studying law while preparing for the ENS Cachan. Back then, the ENS Cachan was an excellent training path to research and doctorates in law, economics, management and other fields such as sciences and engineering. I thus attended a general legal degree and the “Classe préparatoire”, a 2-year preparatory cursus with a very elite approach – of course this always comes with pros and cons. This cursus prepared me intensively for the highly selective “Concours”, a national exam. I passed it successfully and was among the 16 finalists out of thousands of applicants. I was appointed by ministerial decree under a special public servant regime to attend a 3-year curriculum at the ENS Cachan to study for a PhD in law, management and economics, and eventually serve the French State.
When I joined the ENS Cachan, the school was being reformed, the academic program and the PhD changed materially to focus more on business management rather than law and economics. Law was what I was interested in. My first dilemma – be true to my first passion or hold on to a privileged and elite regime at the ENS Cachan? So many applicants at the Concours would have done anything to get the prestige of joining the ENS Cachan. Yet, I decided to resign from the ENS Cachan. I had already proven myself and the PhD was not ultimately a personal goal I wanted to pursue.
I moved on to join another selective program, the “Magistère de Droit des activités économiques” at the Law University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne. Only a small class of about 20 people were selected yearly on merit and through interviews. This 3-year university diploma runs parallel to and is conditional on also obtaining a Bachelor, a Master and a Postgraduate degree at the Law University. The Magistère is a privileged academic path that has its own faculty, professors, courses and exams. Among others, we studied common law, international private law, public law, criminal law, competition law, financial analysis, company taxation and accounting, which was much broader in scope than the general law studies. In addition, the Magistère aims at better preparing law students for their career through mandatory trainings at law firms, tribunals and companies.
My double academic cursus was overall five very demanding and intense years. However, it was so rewarding in terms of learning new skills, gaining professional experiences, and building my alumni network.
After my Magistère diploma and my post-graduate diploma in business law in 1998, I had the opportunity to pursue in writing a PhD but decided I would gracefully decline. I was too eager to start working. Shortly thereafter, I was admitted to the Bar School and successfully passed the Paris Bar exam in 1999.
What do you draw from this hard work and unique experience of attending the Magistère?
When you have completed an intense training in a highly competitive and selective educational environment, it shapes you – your body and mind, and your thought processes. You have learned how to prioritize your work and how to handle many difficult and conflicting tasks under stress. You have more resilience and creativity. It has also allowed me to find a fine balance between mastering a methodology and being agile to improvise depending on unpredictable circumstances.
Looking back to the beginning of your career, what was particularly important for a successful start into your professional life?
Early on I realized that one’s network is paramount. I did not have any lawyer in my family. Moreover, I was fortunate to encounter caring French lawyers such as Maîtres Martine Lombard and Frédéric Manin who took an interest in me. They gave me a stimulating environment to express myself, they encouraged my curiosity and I learned a great deal alongside them when I was a trainee attorney at KGA Avocats in Paris. I like calling them my “career angels”.
At the time, Martine Lombard, a partner, was my internship supervisor. She was also counsel to the French Telecommunication Regulatory Authority from their early days. Surprisingly, she chose me to work with her on a very novel but complex telecommunication matter: The unbundling of the local loop and the underlying legal question on how to oblige the incumbent operator France Telecom to open its telecom network to competitors. This was a fascinating new legal and technical field back then and was definitively my first major career leap into telecommunication regulations, competition law and public law.
I was blooming and at ease at KGA Avocats. One day, Martine told me: “My-Hué, I would love if you stayed here – but you should pursue an international career. You need to work for a more international law firm.” In every career, you need some angels along the way… No doubt, Martine cared for me.
I took a leap of faith and applied at three international law firms. It felt like throwing a bottle into the ocean, except mine did not have to float long. I heard back from Clifford Chance, I was one of the happy few who made it to their selective program for European associates. This entailed starting in Paris and then being seconded either to their London or Frankfurt offices. Even though the application process was already closed, they very much liked my profile and I was lucky, because a caring person at Clifford Chance waited for me to hand in the application late at night (laughs).
At the final stage, we all had to compete in a “Grand Oral” to a panel of lawyers and HR at Clifford Chance. I had very in-depth legal and technical knowledge from this novel complex matter of the unbundling of the local telecommunication loop. This was the perfect subject for my pitch to stand out. While I presented on both the legal framework and the technical aspects of telecom networks, it was actually the technical part, which fascinated the panel the most. They chose me as one of four associates for their European Associate Program that year. I found my new home base. I joined the practice of media, telecoms, technologies, and sports at Clifford Chance.
This practice comprised a young team of male lawyers, some people nicknamed them the “rainmakers” or “boys’ band” team. My first exposure to diversity and inclusion being the youngest and first woman in a very successful male team... I learned a great deal about teamwork, dedication, being result-driven, resilience and asserting myself as a young female professional.
Over the next couple of years, the practice and the team grew. The core team and the partner left Clifford Chance. I was seconded at Clifford Chance in London at the time. I returned eventually to Paris and re-joined my team at our new firm, Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
You worked six years for CISCO, a renowned global technology company, and eleven years for Eaton, one of the largest electrical and industrial companies. How would you describe your work for these two very different companies?
At Cisco, the work environment was very stimulating and culturally enriching. We were at the heart of innovation be it products, services, or the way the legal department was collaborating with other functions. The latest and greatest technologies and tools were made available to us. Our legal department was at the forefront of the legal tech and legal operations. In comparison with our peers on the market, we were already very advanced on how to organize and standardize procedures, workflows, automate approvals of contracts, and continuously updated templates and playbooks. We also created alternative legal support models in better-cost countries, such as India back then. I travelled the world, worked with fantastic cross-functional colleagues on challenging deals and always enjoyed my visits to the Cisco campus in San Jose, California…I called it the “Mother Ship”!
Later I was seconded to Scientific Atlanta, a video technology company acquired by Cisco with its European headquarters in Belgium. My mandate was to understand the processes, the business and legal team of the acquired company and support their integration into Cisco. In retrospect, I was in a difficult position, because of not being empowered to change anything and having to let the “acquired” team and business “be”. In my view, this is an example of what one should not do in a post-acquisition integration. The lessons that I learned the hard way served me well years after at other companies when I was in charge of leading integration projects.
In 2008, I was headhunted by Eaton for a newly created position at their European headquarters in Switzerland. Eaton was a very different company compared to today. In comparison with Cisco, a Californian fast moving technology environment, Eaton felt like the Stone Age to me. It provided a distinctively different insight into the Midwest culture and Ohio State, where the worldwide headquarters used to be located. Having said that, when I joined, Eaton was already in the process of changing. They hired diverse people, which brought a breath of new competencies and mind-sets into the company. I had the opportunity to step up, and modernize the legal department. Leveraging my previous Cisco experience, I advocated for improvements as to the efficiency and costs of our legal department in the EMEA region through the automation and standardization of certain procedures, and the creation and management of a legal support office in Pune, India. Among my many challenges, was establishing the ability to handle higher volumes of legal work without comprising quality, while controlling our legal spend through the implementation of alternative legal service models with law firms. We introduced performance metrics, dashboards and ran the department as an enterprise or a “mini law firm”.
For both companies, I worked from locations in France, Belgium and Switzerland and I travelled extensively in the EMEA region that I was supporting, and occasionally in the Asia Pacific region.
Usually the woman follows the man, where his career takes him. For my husband and me it was the other way round, as he relocated with me to Switzerland. Even in his position as group general counsel for his company, he could work mostly remotely and leveraged the available technologies.
You have been working eleven years for Eaton. How would you describe the industry?
Eaton is a global power management company and a very strong player in the industrial and electrical sectors. The industry is a challenging but fascinating one where a lot remains to be accomplished, especially for companies like Eaton that are dedicated to improving people’s lives and the environment with power management technologies that are more reliable, efficient, safe and sustainable. At Eaton, I had the opportunity to work in diversified industries be it aerospace, automotive, hydraulic, filtration, e-mobility, and the electrical sector. Whether I led my legal team members in Europe or India, negotiated with a customer in Norway, or handled an integration in Turkey, I had to continuously think differently about our business, our communities and what impact my team’s work and mine could have.
How were you able to get to know the businesses of your clients and how did you implement this knowledge in your day-to-day work?
When you are a woman lawyer, you can stay in your spotless headquarters or you can swap your high heels with your sneakers to hit the ground running, visit manufacturing sites and learn about business operations. The operational environment and humans always intrigued me – simply reviewing contracts or a litigation case without context is a little bit dull.
I also used the business trips to meet and understand the local colleagues in their environment and their culture. At Eaton, I handled several post-acquisition integration and divestiture projects; be it in France, Spain, Italy, Germany or Turkey. All were very different business wise and culturally. The Turkish integration projects taught me a great deal about humility and patience, as well as resourcefulness. The Turkish culture is different from our European one but to some extent, there are cultural similarities with Asian culture, such as hospitality and the respect towards seniors.
I spent time learning about industrial processes, environmental health and safety at Eaton’s factories but also at its customers’ sites. I attended professional tradeshows, and some customers gave me tours at some of their amazing manufacturing lines for aircraft engines, trucks, hydraulic hoses, you name it. Understanding the business dynamics and industrial environment were invaluable to me whenever I had to counsel on legal matters related to customers’ needs, claims, product recalls, labour relations or union negotiations, and safety concerns. I could jump in and walk the talk.
What should lawyers pay attention to, when they start a new job in a company in the industrial sector?
Dare to step out and immerse yourself in the environment of your clients. Walk with them through the different production lines and invest time in learning about their business. Your legal work becomes more tangible and your clients get to know you better. Thus, this is a great bonding time with your clients. I often hear the buzzword of being a legal “trusted advisor”. It does not mean much. In reality, you need to walk the talk. How can you defend your client’s best interest, if you actually do not know their products or their business inside and out?
Be realistic about what you are negotiating for. Take the example of a plastic hose. It cannot be repaired. It is thus pointless to negotiate for hours over a contractual warranty clause about the repair remedy.
Let it go and save your energy to fight for something else of greater importance to your client.
Why did you decide to go back to a law firm, namely MANGEAT in Geneva?
I did not plan to stay at Eaton for as long as I did, but I continued to gain more responsibility and could therefore grow within the company. Looking back, I spent the early part of my career in the telecoms and technology sectors, and then moved to the industrial and electrical sector. I always kept in mind the importance of not standing still or feeling cramped. After working as a lawyer for nearly 22 years, I have continuously asked myself: “What keeps me motivated to get up every morning and continue to be fulfilled?”
I wished to contribute differently to the legal profession, leverage my international and operational experiences, be a change advocate… and build in an entrepreneurial environment.
Curiosity and an open-minded approach can lead you to a new position. During my time at Cisco and Eaton, I had the opportunity to learn about the business, and people by leading a team and serving as mentor to other functional colleagues on numerous occasions. Whenever possible, I enjoyed stepping out of my legal field and attending online courses such as an introduction to psychology from Yale University, and reading on neuroscience or urban architecture in my free time. All of these are food for thought, having nothing to do with law yet opening possibilities and fostering reasoning by analogy.
My aspiration was to combine these elements: practicing law in a law firm but finding the right environment to offer alternative and innovative business minded services, and above all caring about the values and impact for our clients and teammates.
Coincidently, my path came across Maître Grégoire Mangeat, former Chairman of the Geneva Bar Association and managing partner at MANGEAT. My aspiration has resonated very well with him.
How would you describe the culture in many law firms and why did you create “the MANGEAT experience” as the Operations Director?
Before I joined MANGEAT, I heard all these stories from lawyers (including from my mentees) about their unhappiness, their desire to have a purposeful job, their burnout, their career glass ceiling. I could not understand how some partners at firms just cared so little about how they treated their associates. How much time do they actually invest to get to know their employees, have a coffee with them and get to understand them, and their aspirations? On a number of occasions, I challenged my partner friends at international law firms about how they manage their team.
It is too easy to turn a blind eye on our societal changes. We need to evolve swiftly and adjust in the way we practice law: the work-life-balance becomes much more important, diversity, be it gender, cultural, sexual orientation, religious or ways of thinking are increasingly hitting the radars of firms’ management. The way we are envisioning career development has to change from simply projecting our linear way up to the top; yet, becoming a partner is no longer the only career path. This is true for law firms with partner management structures, but also in companies, where you only have one general counsel and some senior counsels. It would be interesting, if law firms and companies allowed career development more gradually or laterally and value sets of new skills that are not necessarily limited to mastering the law. Excellent lawyers may turn out to be emotionally challenged, lacking communication agility, and they would make terrible partners while remaining strong and reliable individual contributors to a practice. This would offer a wider range of opportunities than the traditional “up or out” approach and help lawyers find their purposeful role. You can compare it to a beehive: although there is only one queen bee, each bee is equally important to make it work.
A big issue nowadays is the increasing number of lawyers suffering from burnout. The legal profession and the environment they work in, need to adjust to reality. The COVID-19 crisis has been a catalyst for most law firms and accelerated the deployment of work from home practice. It has also helped overcome the unjustified bias that lawyers can only work if they are seated at their desk at the firm.
I was fortunate that the partners at MANGEAT were very open to my ideas and gave me the opportunity to design my ideal job, i.e. a combination of operations and law that fitted very well with the ambitions of this relatively young firm.
As an Operations Director, I oversee the firm’s operations such as client care, business development, marketing, technologies, and people. For instance, our “People” pillar entails the challenges of attracting, developing and retaining a diverse pool of talents. We are convinced that it all starts from the very first interaction with each individual; be it an employee or a client, the first impression counts! We have strengthened the People and Client Care by developing the “MANGEAT experience”, which ranges from the way we interview candidates, our external and internal communication, and our set of values to our brand. It is like introducing a new perfume – different scents provoke different reactions and emotions. I like to believe that our MANGEAT experience can be an agreeable, personalized and lasting one!
The “People” at most law firms should deserve greater care and be a priority.
To make a difference, we have changed the recruitment process from its inception and take in the 360 degrees of what defines a person. Having strong legal skills is not sufficient, we weigh soft skills carefully and assess the potential of each candidate and whether he or she shares our firm’s values and ambitions. If, for example, a candidate does not respect women in leading positions or other cultures, it would be a misfit for our firm, since we stand for inclusion and diversity.
Whomever you send out is an ambassador of the firm’s values and brand. The quality and relevancy of the work we owe to our clients, the wellbeing of the employees, the modern working environment and the values embraced by the law firm are decisive and contribute to our “MANGEAT experience”.
You launched two new practice areas at MANGEAT: Risk Management and Compliance, and the General Counsel Desk. Can you tell us more about it?
MANGEAT had already several well-established practices with seasoned partners and associates. We identified synergy opportunities of complementing the existing strong practice of Financial Crime and Investigations led by Grégoire Mangeat with a risk management and compliance practice. Leveraging on my multinational and operational experience, I advise clients how to proactively and adequately plan and mitigate diverse types of risk whether they are industrial, ethical, labour relations or corporate governance related to name a few. Handling cross-functional or multi-jurisdictional projects, including post-acquisition integrations, is one of my favourites. One has to roll-up his or her sleeves and hit the ground running from day one so that an acquisition value is not undermined, or a project timeline is not delayed. I know exactly what needs to be done. After all, in an acquisition, it is important not only to negotiate a good deal but also to plan and execute the proper integration.
Cyber-security and cyber criminality are additional examples of overlooked risks. Many companies have no or poor awareness of their vulnerabilities and that they could be hacked. Unfortunately, this could lead to a forced shut down of their manufacturing activities, and their inability to deliver customers’ orders. One could mitigate and perhaps avoid such a business disruption and legal risks with a proper contingency plan. You instantly have a domino effect by not having planned for the worst.
Ethics and compliance are other areas that are often neglected and some companies content themselves with paying lip service. The maturity level of compliance programs in Switzerland still has way to go compared with other jurisdictions like France, the U.K. or the U.S.A. While serving as sector general counsel, I supported internal investigations including harassment claims, conflict of interests, and ethics. I assist our clients in navigating the large spectrum of challenges and the speaking up cultural change their companies may face.
With the General Counsel Desk, we created a unique hybrid advisory practice. I am not aware of other firms offering similar services and approach. We can step in for family businesses or other small businesses, which do not have a general counsel or a legal department to bridge a temporary lack of resources or a needed competency for a high profile project. Companies can benefit from our longstanding experience in diversified industries. The General Counsel Desk also advises on the “People” side for example by mapping out the legal competencies, creating or redesigning a legal department. Sometimes sole practitioners, who are general counsels in a company, do not have the managerial experience, or do not know how to set up and lead a legal department. My previous legal leadership roles enable me to share tangible experience. I counsel our clients on legal department management, legal operations and accompany them in considering attracting, motivating, developing and retaining their talents.
What piece of advice would you give young professionals how to develop their careers?
Do not content yourself with only the theoretical approach. Take two or three tips out of ten and give them your own spin. Then, when the time is right, you can implement them. Your career is like your own personal cooking recipe: you can add some grams of this and some grams of that – but each person has its personal taste; one likes it saltier and another sweeter.
Make every little step and interaction count. Be daring. Stay curious! Never stop learning… Your brain is a powerful muscle, cultivate it. Own your career and drive it!
Which female lawyer would you like to nominate as a role model for breaking.through and why?
Maître Martine Lombard, she did not hesitate to take a risk back then when I was a very green trainee attorney. She put me on my launch pad. She was already a reputable professor of law and renowned attorney at law but she took a high interest in my ideas and thought process.
Thank you so much for this interview!
Geneva / Zurich, 20. and 27. November 2020. This interview was conducted by Florence J. Jaeger.
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