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Tips & Insights - Destined to Build

"I am technically French, but I have a much stronger connection to the Asian world," explains Laure Deron, general counsel of Veolia China, a water management company that contracts with China's largest cities for their water needs. Her upbringing in Hong Kong, Thailand, Taiwan, Russia — and most presently China — would foreshadow her contributions to the development of the continent.

Deron is the daughter of a journalist for Agence de Presse who later worked as a foreign correspondent for the French daily newspaper Le Monde. Francis Deron, her father, was a leading expert on Asia who reported on the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia and the Tiananmen Square suppression. Her mother is a Chinese history scholar who concentrates on the West's 17th century exploration of China.  The family comes from a background in French Indochina. "So, as I said, we're very Asian," she insists.

Deron's primary school was Chinese. Her continuing education was mostly in French international schools. As adolescence peaked, she grew tired with her expat life and knew it was time to return to Europe to study. "I also knew that if I was ever going to come back to Asia, I wanted to do something. I wanted to help develop and I had to find a way to contribute," she recalls. Big projects require massive financing so she concentrated her legal studies in business applications.

During her time at the Sorbonne in Paris, she also worked as a legal translator and proofreader for Aga Khan IV, the British business magnate and 49th and current Imam of Nizari Ismailism, an offshoot of Shia Islam. The Aga Khan knows a lot about big projects and financing. His eponymously named development network is an international agency that brings resources to over 30 countries. The organization's budget for nonprofit activities was approximately $625 million in 2010. 

Deron is quite proud to have had a small part in the establishment of  the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in 1995–1997.  This is a wonderful project, she says, that helps among others bring education to the people of the post-Soviet states in Central Asia where mountains, which make travel to schools difficult, surround the villages in the area. 

Her mother, the history scholar, raised her to speak Slavic languages and in particular, Russian. Deron's language proficiency (she also speaks Mandarin, English, Spanish and her native French), combined with her law study, was ideal because she could proofread contractual documents in English and Russian.

In 1998, Deron graduated with honors from the Sorbonne with an undergraduate degree in Legal Studies and a specialization in contract law, business law and international trade law. She stayed at the Sorbonne to complete a one-year postgraduate course in International Trade Law and Private International Law, also with honors. "For one year, you push your intellectual boundaries:  we were a small, motivated group, and I think we drank, ate, breathed and spoke only of that special area of law," she remembers fondly.

Her studies concentrated on the appropriate venue to settle international legal disputes. She explains: "If you have a French person trading with a Chinese person, each will be relying on their own sets of contractual rules which sometimes can conflict. So there's a whole body of rules in law that govern how you choose between applying the French law to a contract or the Chinese law to a contract and if you disagree on which set of rules you should apply, you go a French judge or a Chinese judge to determine the solution."

Deron was a summer associate at French firm Arilla & Associes while at university. Following her graduation, she joined them full-time. She worked in several practice areas: intellectual property, distribution law, international trade (her favorite) and a lot of litigation (her least favorite). Litigation, besides being a stretch from her goal of building something in Asia, struck her as contrary to her Asian sensibilities. "The moment you take somebody to court, "she says, "it is quite clear in everybody's mind that you'll never do business again together. So it's just bad taste to even threaten, because everyone understands that we're here to do business."

Deron soon moved to Jones Day, the American law firm, to work in the field of merger and acquisitions, while also lecturing at her alma mater. The structure was completely different than the French firm. Traditional French firms, she explains, have a habit of taking you young and throwing you in the ocean and letting you learn to swim. Mistakes may be made, but eventually lessons are learned. American firms, in her experience, provide no autonomy and make lawyers repeat assignments ad nauseum until it's basic muscle memory. "The attention to detail and the capacity to spot other people's mistakes and to see when there is a lack of anticipation on their side, this is something that I'm using everyday in Asia because I am able to see where things are going to go," she says.

The problem with the rigorous American-style training is its lack of flexibility. Deron sees American lawyers in Asia who are so rigid and excellent in their methods that they have a hard time adjusting their style. "The thing is in Asia things move very fast and things are, by essence, unpredictable because of my area," she says. Deron, who contracts with governmental authorities, which at times can be disorganized and have unreasonable expectations, says elasticity is key. "This is where my survival skills as a French lawyer, from swimming alone in the middle of the ocean, is very helpful because I have to rely on intuition. If I insist on doing it perfectly, it's not going to work. I have to compromise and find something that will be equally business-friendly and with as little danger as possible."

By 2006, Deron felt she was a strong enough swimmer to transition to Asia. She transferred to the Beijing office of the French firm Gide Loyrette Nouel, where she worked on inbound and outbound foreign investment, cross-border transactions and infrastructure projects. She realized that she knew absolutely nothing about Chinese law when she arrived. Gradually, she retrained herself. She accepted that she will never be a fully autonomous Chinese lawyer because she was not trained in it. Her position requires the ability to build a team. "I need to blend the different talents of different lawyers and make them work together. I know my limitations. I need to connect with each and every one of the local lawyers because I know that if we don't work well together, I can't supplement their work if I had to," she explains.

Deron moved to her current company, Veolia China, in 2011 where she works on the Energy, Waste and Water businesses. The transition in-house meant longer hours for her. She was steadily busy – in contrast to the law firm where she was either extremely busy or not busy at all. She got used to the cyclic milestones associated with the year's end and budget times.

Deron, finally back in her native Asia, is building and operating the infrastructure of the continent. She likes the trend of environmental consciousness she sees. "I came back not just to build a factory but to also operate a factory in a way that it doesn't damage the rest of the continent," she says.

She doesn't put a lot of stock in cultural differences. Respect and the feeling that you got something out of a situation are universal expectations, she says. You'll always have to offer those if you want to strike a deal. To her, there are two main differences when operating in Asia. One is political. Some countries have a well-established rule of law. Others are still transitioning, and can be unpredictable. Things can go wrong and the Western reflex of "let's make a case before a judge and have due process" may not be the best option; instead, steps need to be anticipated to protect oneself.

The second aspect is language. Deron often hears foreigners complain that the Chinese are not providing the whole picture; that they have a secret agenda. Usually, it's much simpler:  negotiations are typically conducted in English, an easy learn for most Western negotiators. The gap between Chinese and English is very big, making it more complicated and intimidating for Chinese negotiators, which their European counterparts often fail to realize. "Rather than risk being misunderstood because they are unsure that they can convey their thinking with the right level of sophistication and nuances, people will not say," she says. A degree of empathy is all that is needed to overcome the barrier.

Veolia's website lists 15 major water contracts in China and several in the Asia Pacific region. Behind many of those contracts is Laure Deron, who knew she was destined to build something in Asia. She is succeeding.

 


Getting to Know Laure Deron ...

Laure Deron

What is something you learned in law school that you still use everyday?

Arguing. Preparing myself for negotiations. This is where litigation experience, although I had very little experience compared to lawyers who made a career in litigation, comes in handy because as a litigator you train yourself for court by anticipating every possible contradiction you will get from the other side. In business, when you negotiate, that technique is still useful because you still have to think if they want to take me there, if they want to choose this, if they want to corner me with that, what is my response? How can I get myself out of that? They trained us in law school because they train you to twist reasoning in and out. If you find yourself in a situation, try to move yourself out of it.

What's the best piece of advice you have ever received?

Do what you like. Honestly, it's a little bit cliché but I don't think you can be very good if you don't like what you're doing. I come from a family with a lot of people in the arts. These people have a wonderful advantage over the rest of us because they are never at work. They don't keep a job. They just do what they like and happen to get a living out of it. 

What is the greatest misconception of the in-house lawyer?

That you're sure to kill their deal and that you'll create so many problems that they'll end up not having a transaction. You'll have to educate business colleagues that I'm not here to kill your transaction; I'm here to help you in signing it and I'm also here to guard you against overly optimistic moves.

What's your favorite hobby?

I like watching combat sports — I do a bit of Krav Maga, and I do a lot of hiking. I'm generally more of an outdoor person. I'm a singer in amateur choirs. And then I cook.

Do you have a favorite app on your phone?

Not really. To tell you the truth, my phone has become so much of a work instrument that my favorite moment is when my phone is really far away.

 

About the Author

Joshua Shields is an associate editor at the Association of Corporate Counsel.


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