In conversation with: Katherine Wren, Solidigm

Good lawyers are usually good communicators, but what happens if you relocate to another country? In this interview we explore the challenges of relocation, and why cultural awareness and adaptability will often trump legal and regulatory differences.

Katherine began her legal career in the telecommunications industry in the US, before joining Caterpillar Inc. in 2007. She relocated to Peterborough in the UK in 2015, serving as regional counsel for Caterpillar’s Industrial Power Systems Division until repatriation in 2020. Now Associate General Counsel for Silicon Valley tech start-up Solidigm, we asked her to think back to her time in the UK and tell us about her experience of navigating the legal landscape in a different country.

Katherine Wren, Associate General Counsel, from Solidigm in conversation with Malcolm Simpson, Managing Partner, Walker Morris
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Katherine Wren, Solidigm

Hi Katherine, it’s great to see you again. We appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts with us. Can you start by telling me about some of the key differences you’ve experienced working as a General Counsel in a different country?

Well, the first thing I think is important to say is that the law is always going to be the law, there’s no way around that! You’ll have to learn it to do your job. So, for me, the biggest element to navigate is cultural. Understanding what makes certain cultures tick and knowing how to speak the local ‘language’ is really important. If you think about contracts for example, the US and UK often use different terminology for the same things: “best endeavours” instead of “best efforts” and while this might seem minor (and makes no difference from a legal application standpoint), during the course of a negotiation, communication is everything. If you’re lucky enough to be part of a large international organisation as I was, it’s likely there will already be a local team on the ground which is helpful, but you always have to think about who your audience is. You definitely can’t have the mentality that “I’ll just do it the way I’ve always done it”; you need to immerse yourself with the local team and the way that they do things so you can learn from them day-to-day. In my experience local counsel and external firms were also very willing to support me as I got used to the new environment.

Thanks Katherine, it sounds like culture and communication are vital. What about legal and regulatory challenges? Are there any in particular that General Counsel might encounter when transitioning from one country to another?

If you’re working in a global, multinational company, you’ll likely have some knowledge of different regulatory frameworks around the world since you already need to be sensitive to them. In my view, it’s more about acclimating to take this into account on a day-to-day basis.

So, how important is cultural awareness and adaptability when working as a General Counsel in diverse international environments?

To me, it’s the most important thing. Others may not agree, but people often go in and think they’ll do it one way, but that doesn’t always translate. Where I sit today, we have far-reaching global operations and sometimes I work with people who haven’t had the same kind of opportunities to work in different places as I have. This shows up in things like scheduling meetings – not taking the effort to recognise that some team members are in different time zones and might not be able (or willing) to work late or come in early to participate in a meeting at a time that works for you. This might seem like a small thing, but demonstrates that without those first-hand experiences, it’s very easy to be insensitive without even realising it.

Can you describe a specific case or scenario that highlights the unique challenges or opportunities you faced while practicing law in a different country?

I don’t think I experienced anything that’s country specific, it’s much more about the company – their culture and expectations in different regions. It’s pretty normal for the local teams to have complaints about the newcomers, and vice versa, and I think it would be fair to say that there’s not always enough sensitivity going around. It requires a level of reciprocity and a willingness from those living overseas to find out what’s customary in the business world they have just arrived in, be nimble and adapt, and make sure that they strike a balance between making the local business successful while meeting the expectations or requirements of global headquarters.

In your experience, how do the expectations and responsibilities of a General Counsel differ from one country to another?

Again, I think this is more company-specific and less about geography. For example, you might not be seen so much as a partner, more an advisor, and this is more about the overarching company culture of the overseas office location than the country itself.

What advice would you give to aspiring General Counsel who plan to work internationally and need to adapt to different legal systems and cultures?

If someone is going to be in an expat situation, I would advise against living in an expat enclave. Of course, there are some places where that’s not possible for a variety of reasons, but where it is possible, get to know what life is like in your new home and allow yourself to get to know the local culture and customs. Whether you like it or not, that will be very helpful in guiding you in your job.

Personally, I don’t tend to categorise things in my brain, I just sit down and get the work done. So, I didn’t necessarily see much difference in the way things operated during my expat assignment: it was the same Caterpillar universe, just with different people and different customs. It helps to get to know people and develop relationships, because you need to build trust if you’re going to be actively sitting round the table. But all of these elements are skills that a good lawyer, whether in-house or not, should already have and be implementing.

“Understanding what makes certain cultures tick and knowing how to speak the local ‘language’ is really important.”

Katherine Wren, Associate General Counsel, Solidigm
Katherine Wren, Associate General Counsel, from Solidigm in conversation with Malcolm Simpson , Managing Partner, Walker Morris