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Leveraging Lessons from Abroad for Our Clients

Posted by Jonathan Levitt on February 29, 2016 at 11:18 AM

As a three-time former general counsel, Washington D.C. team member Jim Higham brings a strategic mindset and results-oriented approach to his work. However, a lifetime of fascinating experiences from living abroad - learning about new cultures and honing essential “survival skills” along the way - has also shaped Jim’s perspective, informing his work on behalf of Outside GC clients. Jim’s story is interesting, and in many respects, one-of-a-kind.

Jim was born in India, where his father was a graduate student of Indian philosophy at Benares Hindu University. The same sense of adventure that led his parents to marry in Calcutta, India would eventually steer his father to a career with the U.S. government as a foreign service officer in southeast Asia. Moving every three years, the Higham family lived in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iran, Turkey and South Africa.

In each location, Jim attended international schools and quickly learned how to navigate new environments as an expat student where locals were the majority, building relationships with his peers and learning about (and appreciating) cultures dramatically different from his own. These early life experiences would play a considerable role in Jim’s later life, particularly with his skillful approach to business relationships in Asia.

The road to a career in international business did not begin in law school, though. Instead, Jim purposely studied with a broad corporate focus in order to best prepare himself for an early jump off the traditional law firm track. With an eye toward business, Jim landed his first in-house position with Telligent, a publicly traded telecommunications company, after working on a transaction for them as a fourth year associate with Hogan & Hartson.

Jim was initially responsible for Telligent’s corporate securities work, but was ultimately asked also to lead the business-side of the company’s international deals after proving himself during a business trip to Australia.

Following Telligent, Jim accepted a position with Vsource, Inc., a NASDAQ-listed provider of business process outsourcing services throughout Asia-Pacific, where Jim served as General Counsel and, for a short period of time, as the head of human resources. Jim temporarily lived in Malaysia and travelled extensively, visiting operational sites throughout the region and observing how business was conducted in different countries with the notable exception of China.

Jim’s experience with China would come with his next position at Vistage International, Inc., a membership organization providing executive development services in sixteen countries. After two years as GC, Jim was asked to head Vistage’s international development efforts, focusing on their new and struggling operations in China. Jim spent much time there, setting up operations, managing business and building important partnerships for the company. From this experience, Jim gained invaluable insights into how business transactions differ between the U.S. and China, and what is necessary to get things done in light of these differences.  

Of the many lessons, Jim highlights two key take-aways. First, as you have no doubt heard, Asian business culture relies heavily on building trust through socializing with potential partners. This trust is best earned by demonstrating a genuine openness to a new culture. Jim’s childhood prepared him well for these “trust/fear factor tests,” teaching him to embrace new adventures, including eating exotic local foods such as scorpion, pig brains, sparrows on a stick and duck blood soup! By proving himself a worthy gourmand, Jim was successful managing relationships and closing significant transactions in Asia.

Second, Jim learned that the Chinese are very process-driven, approaching contracts formulaically with strict adherence to the rules. For example, when setting up his first company in China (a process which takes many months and a great deal of paperwork, largely in Chinese), Jim thought he had covered all the right bases when selecting the company name. However, his application was denied simply because one word in the proposed name lacked a plural form. It took hours working through a translator to sort it all out and rebuild enough trust to earn an approval. 

Despite these differences, Jim does not advise taking unnecessary business risks just for the sake of demonstrating trust.  For instance, due diligence should never be waived even if your Asian partner suggests that it will show a lack of trust, which can be a clever way of avoidance. The consequences of compromising your position cannot be understated. If you are considering a partnership or other business transaction in Asia, please feel free to reach out to Jim for strategic and operational advice.  He can be reached at jhigham@outsidegc.com or (202) 827-6868.

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Outside GC is an innovative approach to legal services for growing and mature businesses. Companies who engage Outside GC fall into two main categories: (1) those without in-house counsel who need regular, on-going legal support but do not wish to hire a full-time in-house lawyer, and (2) those with in-house counsel who do not wish to add more full-time resources to their existing in-house staff. Contact us to speak to one of our on-demand attorneys.