Ms. Haruko Watanuki
General Counsel, Goldman Sachs Japan (Ltd.)
Read an interview by her in 2004 in Hudson bullet in
Watanuki spent 16 years in Goldman Sachs by 2004.
Watanuki sensei: I thought deeply when I was deciding to change jobs, and one of the things that came up was that I would stop simply going from one foreign bank to the next. When I went to job interviews, there were some things that I looked out for. In my questions to the interviewers, I asked these Tokyo senior managers, “What are your goals? Where are you going?” You know, when I worked for a law firm I looked around a lot of foreign companies, and it was evident that a good number of the expats in Tokyo were spending half of the year thinking about how much they were making that year and when they were going home. I thought if anyone like that was in the senior management of the company in Tokyo, I would not want to work for them.
When I had interviews at Goldman Sachs, I asked that question of the various senior officers and regardless of how sincere they actually were (laughs), they gave me good answers, and that was where it all began. I confirmed their answers and took the job. Back in 1988, Goldman Sachs in Japan was a small organization, a 300-employee company where I could recognize everyone. Setting up a legal department from scratch was an immense task, but fun, and everyone took good care of me. And from the receptionists through to the management staff, everyone was committed to the company and doing business there—they were very talented and intelligent. To this day I believe there is no company with smarter people or a better working environment.
Q.3 What has happened since you joined Goldman Sachs to lead the establishment of the Legal Department as the in-house counsel? I am sure you faced a great variety of challenges.
Watanuki sensei: Challenges indeed, but they were often fun and always in a very supportive environment, I have really become close to my colleagues. Expanding the department was a very difficult task at first. I started by asking myself what sort of department I would want for myself, and what sort of people I would want working for me if I was running it. But recruiting lawyers was actually a nightmare.
In 1988, Salomon Brothers Asia and Goldman were the only foreign financial institutions with Japanese lawyers—nobody else had any in-house “bengoshi”. The number of in-house lawyers grew little by little in the 1990s, but it was very hard to retain good lawyers for the unusual work of an investment bank at that time. So recruiting was the hardest job I had. Although he has now left , a Japanese lawyer joined us six years ago and it was by his gallant effort that we were able to retain some lawyers with both Japanese and foreign licenses. It became easy in some respects.
When I first entered the company, I was the only qualified lawyer here. Now we have five lawyers with Japanese licenses and four lawyers with overseas qualifications, a total of nine. We also have five legal professionals, as well as a judicial scrivener, assistants and secretaries.
Q.4 What is the culture like in the Goldman Sachs legal team?
Watanuki sensei: I was in a law firm for a long time and there are differences. Personally, I was always blessed with superiors who provided me with coaching and guidance and who would answer any questions seriously at any time and deal with me earnestly. So when I became Senior Legal Counsel I did my best to give the same kind of assistance. In terms of the Legal Department, there are a number of things I pay attention to but above all, I believe that good communication, a strong flow of information and sharing knowledge are vital.
Since there are far more things that one person does not know rather than does know, my intention is that by sharing information, the business side will appreciate our work in the best possible sense. For the business side to receive value from our team, it is not a matter of just doing whatever they want us to do. It is a question of clearly explaining reasons and communicating convincingly why it is that we must give a negative opinion. This is something that I am always careful to do, and I convey this to my staff too.
(Is there more understanding by the business side of your company now about how to use the Legal Department and its role?)
Watanuki sensei: Yes, considerably more. I’ve said this before but these are smart people. When I was setting up the Legal Department on my own, their bosses were stressing the importance of the Legal Department, very openly. So when I would point out a problem, the managers would tell their staff that it was a problem because our lawyer said so. Everyone was a “salaryman” back then and would basically do as their superior told them. What the Legal Department has to say never goes unheeded.
Q.5 Who is the perfect employee for the Goldman Sachs Legal Department? Are there any special characteristics looked for by Goldman Sachs in terms of mid-career recruits?
Watanuki sensei: Since we are doing business in Tokyo, although this would depend on the field, it is absolutely vital that our employees have Japanese ability. Naturally, English ability is also a prerequisite. If I was to tell you my ideal person we would be here forever, but if I had to pick one thing, they would be smart. A smart person not only in terms of being able to study, but in terms of being able to understand things and do their job while constantly asking themselves what they should be doing and questioning their own mission.
They must also be able to work as part of a team. Of course it is good to have someone who is physically strong and gung-ho about working, but rather than long hours, we need people who are speedy and efficient. The speed of the business is fast and while research is important, we really need someone who can pick out problems quickly. We need people who can give an interim response on the spot when the business side needs it and will come back later with a fuller answer.
Therefore, I think there is a distinction between those who are working for law firms and those who are doing in-house work for companies. There are lawyers who prefer to give legal advice more on the basis of their own exhaustive research and legal opinions than an understanding of their clients. On the other hand, there are those with excellent communication skills who would work closely with business and are able to give a prompt response to the issues on the table, at the same time asking the business side for their understanding on a legal basis. This is the kind of person who we would welcome with open arms to an in-house position.
Q.６ What are the attractions of working at Goldman Sachs? What difficulties would a lawyer working as in-house counsel in the Legal Department face?
Watanuki sensei: Well, it is basically great fun to work when everyone is very good at their job. Also, much of what we do is at the cutting edge so while we do not see the ultimate stage of executing proposals for customers very often, it is very interesting to work with the business side on developing areas that have never been touched by anyone before.
What’s more, the Goldman Sachs training program is excellent. Between company programs, and participation in outside seminars and programs as required for work, the career support here is second to none. I also believe our training support is very attractive in that it includes exchanges with teams overseas. In addition, there is a flexible working system catering for women with children, and that is very popular.
In regards challenges—and this applies to all financial institutions—the Legal Department lives by its people. Very little can be done by machine, so we are always on the lookout for talented people. That’s why our biggest challenge is maintaining quality and retaining staff.
Q.７ Apart from legal knowledge and experience, what is the secret formula or mentality needed for succeeding as an in-house counsel at Goldman Sachs?
Watanuki sensei: You should have a positive personality, be someone who does not brood over and fall victim to their own mistakes—you should be someone who is positive about everything. Being the kind of company we are, we often have to spend a penny today if we are to make a pound tomorrow. People who are doubtful or suspicious about such short term matters are not likely to stay the course. Business is quick and there is a lot of pressure, so this would suit mentally tough people who can see the job through to the end of the day and then leave it at that.
Q.8 There has been more interest in moving to in-house positions among lawyers lately. The fact is, however, there is little understanding in general about the in-house career path. Give us a rundown.
Watanuki sensei: I would have to ask myself, what would have become of me had I stayed at the law firm? How happy would I have been to make partner, even though there were dozens ahead of me? (laughs) But now that the firm is enormous, how happy would I have been in such a big practice? I suppose lawyers remaining in the world of law firms hope to become partners, then equity partners, with fewer and fewer people above them as they go higher. I guess I would have thought the same way if I was there.
But outside the firm there are so many different people, and in a good, open company like this one, you can experience the satisfaction of everyone building a business together from the very beginning. While this has not happened in Tokyo yet, in other places in-house counsels have grown to like business, and one went from being a derivatives lawyer to someone who actually trades in derivatives. Some also move to positions that are not direct, frontline posts but which work very closely with them in an intermediary kind of office, on the one hand watching compliance, on the other using their knowledge of the law to help create products, without actually going and selling them to customers.
If you have an interest in management, there is that as well. If you could put aside for a moment the idea that law firms are the beginning and end of it all, and think a little bit about what you really want to do. But even if I tell law firm people to think, the fact is that they are too busy to know what else there is out there.
Not having Saturdays or Sundays off, working every day from morning till night, you have no time to wonder if this life is not a little strange, and no alternatives in front of you either. Looking back at my own past, I can empathize with people who are in the same situation I was in at that time in my life. That is why it is always pleasure to speak to individuals considering career options because I remember how I wished I had someone to speak when I made my decision to change jobs.