Lessons I Learned in Law

James Morgan on being adaptable, patient and open to opportunity

August 03, 2023 Heriot Brown Season 5 Episode 5
Lessons I Learned in Law
James Morgan on being adaptable, patient and open to opportunity
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of Lessons I Learned in Law, Scott Brown speaks to James Morgan, Managing Director and the Co-General Counsel for EMEA at Japan’s largest bank MUFG. James is responsible for overseeing all legal issues of MUFG Bank, including litigation and enforcement matters, corporate structure and acquisitions as well as regional corporate governance.

James shares the three lessons he has learned in law including:

·      Be adaptable. When changes happen try and embrace them. 

·      Don’t be siloed. Try and be generalist in your approach to your career and any opportunities that may arise along the way. 

·      Be patient. A legal career can be a bit like climbing a mountain. You may need to sidestep, or even move down in order to move up. Don’t feel you need to achieve giant strides in a short space of time. 

James explains how his Co-general Counsel role came about, and how MUFG have subsequently adopted co-head roles in other departments as a result of the proven gains in flexibility and performance. ‘One plus one equals three’, James says. 

James also reveals he’s a dab-hand at Karaoke – something that’s been surprisingly useful recently in his career! 

Presented by Scott Brown of Heriot Brown Legal Recruitment

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This episode of Lessons I Learned in Law is brought to you by Beamery.

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Scott Brown  (0:00)  

Hi, welcome to another episode of lessons I learned in law, the leading legal podcast brought to you by Heriot Brown In-House Legal Recruitment. I'm the host, Scott Brown, and Managing Director and Founder at Heriot Brown. And we specialise in placing top notch lawyers in house across all sectors in commerce and industry and financial services. On the podcast, I'm joined by top legal professional, someone at the top of their game. And I'm delighted this week to be joined by James Morgan, who is managing director and CO General Counsel at MUFG. 


James Morgan  (0:039)

Hi, Scott. 


Scott Brown  (0:40)  

Hi, James. Thanks for joining me. MUFG, for those that you don't know, it's Japan's largest bank and the fifth largest bank in the world. I'm really excited to hear more about that. And your journey to that position as called General Counsel. We're here recording it in be Murray's office. Again, the series has been very special in getting that James is telling me that your office is blocked by this building.


James Morgan  (1:03)  

Yeah, my views blocked by this building. But it's really exciting to be here. I have to admit, as a member of a Japanese company, and a lover of karaoke, it's really difficult having a big microphone in front of me and, and resisting the temptation to sing. But well, I'm hoping that your listeners will appreciate me more of what I've got to say, rather than what I've got to sing.


Scott Brown  (1:29)  

Well, I'm not going to stop you the invitation is there. What's your go to on the karaoke?


James Morgan  (1:33)  

I'm very versatile. So really, it'd be you'd be really surprised. Pop, rap, rock, anything.


Scott Brown  (1:40)  

Excellent. I've been reading the Culture Map the book, and it goes into around Japanese culture and karaoke and how it plays such an important role in business.


James Morgan  (1:51)  

So perhaps one of my early mistakes at MUFG was my first trip to Japan, where my boss in Japan said, What is it you'd like to do? And I said, Well, I'd love to love to do karaoke. And I've heard so much about it. I didn't really realise how seriously it was taken. And when a sort of group started belting out in sort of operatic tones, some of the karaoke songs and it got to me singing Mariah Carey, it was perhaps a low point in my career or a high point, whichever way you look at it.


Scott Brown  (2:26)  

I'll read more on that later. But we'll jump into lesson one, if you could share that these


James Morgan  (2:30)  

Lesson One is very much about adaptability, and embracing change. And so one of the lessons that I learned very early on was that an environment which is always changing all the time, and I originally qualified at slaughter of May, as a tax efficient finance lawyer. And that was pre global financial crisis. And we had a number of big clients. But some of those big clients when the financial crisis occurred in back in 2007 2008, that that work dried up, some of those clients themselves went into administration or insolvency proceedings. And I very quickly started doing insolvency related work and restructuring related work. When I moved in house, it was to Citigroup originally, and it was for a derivatives position, right. And when I was interviewing for the role, I had to Google what a derivative was, I had had no idea. And I was sort of leading a derivatives team at the bank. And that's sort of been part of my career. I think there's always been something new that's come along. And it's something that really excites me, I think is when changes happen, just trying to see the opportunities. They're trying to embrace that trying to adapt. And I think that not only grows you as a lawyer, but it also protects you in poor economic cycles, I guess. Yeah. Well, yeah. Were after the last financial crisis, tax efficient financing, as I said, just dried up overnight. And so I recognised quite early on in my career, the need to change


Scott Brown  (4:12)  

Working in that environment during that time. 2008. What were the thoughts initially?


James Morgan  (4:17)  

It was really tough. It's very hard. I have a lot of colleagues in other law firms lose their jobs. They had become quite specialist quite early on, and was sort of slower, I guess, to sort of see what was coming and slower to adapt to that. I was at slaughters. As I mentioned at the time, one of the great things there was we had picked up a mandate of work to act for the UK Government through the various bank administrations. So Northern Rock, Bradford and Bingley and then the Icelandic banks and honestly, Lehman Brothers as well, later on. That was an incredible learning experience. It was an incredible experience. We'll stop, there was a lot of sleepless nights at the time, and a lot of government officials coming in a lot of weekend work. It was probably the thing that ultimately drove me into an in house career. But the experience was fantastic. I mean, you sort of learn more in six weeks than you would in six years. Yeah.


Scott Brown  (5:19)  

Yeah. And seeing, seeing stuff like that play out. It's really, really interesting. And in terms of adaptability, is there anything outside of your career? I guess that's made you adaptable or particularly adaptable? Because that's, that's quite a switch moving into derivative role not knowing much about it. 


James Morgan  (5:36)  

Yeah. And, you know, that has continued through my career. So when I was at Citi, that role switched very much into more of a regulatory role. When I started to MUFG, it was in a, as a regulatory lawyer, or regulatory capacity. And that sort of adapted to sort of running a couple of transaction teams and ultimately now sort of acting as general counsel, code general counsel for the region. So yeah, I think a theme of my career has always been that that constant change, and, and personally, I thrive on it, perhaps it's because I have a poor attention span, I don't know, maybe, if I start reading something, if I if I start reading books, I'm halfway through and I'm desperate to get to get to the end or desperate to get to the next book. Same with movies. Same with lots of aspects of my life. So perhaps it's the fact that that constant change for me, keeps things really interesting keeps things really fresh means that I'm learning all the time. Yeah. And I really enjoy that. 


Scott Brown  (6:39)  

And do you go out seeking that change in those opportunities? Is that something you've sought out? Or have they played out?


James Morgan  (6:44)  

Yeah, absolutely. So I think maybe this is a corollary lesson is just sort of saying yes to stuff. So, for example, I took a role for 10 months at MUFG. In Amsterdam, it was just meant to be a few weeks trip, when our then head of legal in our Amsterdam office, left the bank for another role. And they wanted me to sort of fail on an interim basis and say that interim turned into 10 months. So I think a lot of people would step back, and they may sort of think, Okay, what does this mean? And what's going to be the impact on my future career? I've never really thought like that. I've just thought, Okay, this is what I need to do. This is the opportunity that's come at this moment in time. Yeah, I've just said yes to that. And that's worked really well, for me. I was Amsterdam. Yeah, fantastic. It was really over the period, just immediately post Brexit. Right. So MUFG had had an office in Amsterdam for about 60 years. But that office became much more prominent as our main European Union hub, after the Brexit vote. So it was quite an exciting time to be on the continent to see the growth of the businesses there, and to see the growth of the legal team.


Scott Brown  (8:08)  

So we'll move into the lesson two


James Morgan  (8:10)  

Lesson two, perhaps slight overlap, I guess is don't be siloed remain quite generalist in your approach. I think there is an in house career, in my view is not synonymous with a career in a private practice law firm. And I think in private practice, the focus of your career, and a lot of the skill set you develop is around building very deep subject matter expertise. And in an in house environment, you don't need that depth of subject matter expertise, because you have law firms that you can utilise and other advisors that you can utilise when you need that depth, but what you need to do is be able to issue spot to advise the business not just on legal aspects, but really act as a sort of counsel to them on strategic business matters, on, you know, new products, new jurisdictions that that we're sort of looking at. And that very much comes I think, with the experience of doing as many different things as possible. And what we do as sort of lawyers, it's not rocket science. There's lots of complexity to it. But actually, everything derives from first principles of law. And being able to when you sort of experience a lot of different subject matters, be a litigation be a regulatory issue be a transactional issue and in transactional issues, whether it's a loan product or a derivative product. There are a lot of commonalities from a legal perspective that the market practice may differ. And lots of things may differ, but the more experience you get across them, the more breadth you get there it easier when it comes to picking new things up. And I think that the more you've recognised that, actually, there are lots of similarities. And if you strip things back to first principles, that's where you can really add a lot of value to the business. Yeah.


Scott Brown  (10:15)  

In your team MUFG do Is that something you encourage people to move around in different parts of the legal function?


James Morgan  (10:23)  

Yeah, very much. So. So one of our big strategies for the legal department is around internal mobility. And that has itself sort of that's very broad in its it conceptually. So it includes mobility to other countries to other offices, et Cie, being somewhere like MUFG, we've got presence in over 60 countries around the globe, about 30 different offices in this particular region. So getting the experience of different offices is something that we really encourage. And it's, it's very different being in the London office, for example, which has two and a half to 3000 people, versus being in the Paris office, which has 120 People in 30 people being an illegal team in London, sort of legal team of 50, or 60. Lawyers, versus being in an legal team in Turkey, of two lawyers. And so having that sort of different experience really helps our lawyers become more rounded. So that's one form of internal mobility. Another form of internal mobility is that cross training in teams. So if you are a derivative specialist, then we encourage maybe 20% of your time, you also spend learning some loans merch or doing some regulatory work, and vice versa. Yeah. So just to kind of encourage that breath encouraged that way of thinking and to train general counsel's for the future, I think. And then, thirdly, for internal mobility, it's mobility outside of legal as well. It is very easy to be on a track and be a lawyer from the moment you graduate, right the way through to the moment you retire. But actually, to be a really good advisor in general counsel, it's good that you've had other experiences as well. So we would encourage people to go and spend some time with our businesses, whether that is on a three day short secondment, or whether that is on a three month or six month secondment because I think if our lawyers understand what our stakeholders What are businesses, what their sensitivities on what frustrates them maybe about dealing with the legal department, then ultimately, it's going to mean that they can deliver a better service last year.


Scott Brown  (12:52)  

No, absolutely. It's so there's often levelled at big banks from candidates that we speak to is that you do get siloed sounds quite refreshing to hear that, that there's real mobility and opportunities to move around at the edge. really attractive must be must be great in terms of retention as well, and people to see that there are those opportunities outside of potentially the scope of their current position. So tell me more about the core General Counsel position. I'm interested to hear about how that came around and how it works.


James Morgan  (13:21)  

Yeah, so my code General Counsel, product, Kumar, and I had worked together for a number of years running the transactional team at MUFG in the legal department. And when the then General Counsel left the organisation, we were both identified as potential successes. And we were both interviewing for his role as a replacement. And probate and I sat down together and we talked it through and we just said, Well, I think we can achieve more in the two of us combined. It's a big job. There's a big geography. And probably one of us, this was pre pandemic, as well, one of us will be travelling a lot around our offices. So it's good to have somebody also there for the emergency or phone calls as well. And frankly, we also both had had personal lives. We had families and young families, and wanted to make sure that the job done consumers I guess, and that we got that balance right, with with our personal lives. So we pitched the idea to MUFG MUFG, I think reluctantly accepted initially, I think they've felt it was a bit of an experiment, right. And her four years on I think we've shown that one plus one is three, we have been able to do more because of it. We both have different skill sets. We both have different ways of thinking about things. It doesn't mean that we don't argue we do argue between us and our Fun that results in a sort of third way of doing something that genuinely is of benefit to the company and benefit to the legal team and the and the people in it. So I think it's a, it's a really positive cultural experiment. Really, that's yeah, that's I think, in our case succeeded. I think MUFG had bought into it now as well, we have two other co-head functions, actually. So recently, in the last year, the HR team has been established as a as a co-head group function. And we have one of our business lines set up as a co-head function. And I think that the secret is just, you know, we're not in competition with one another. We're just talking all the time. And communication, I guess.


Scott Brown  (15:48)  

Yeah, it must be a great case study in terms of how it works. Has there been any interest from other general counsel's looking at it and thinking that I'd like to learn more about that? Or how does that work in practice?


James Morgan  (16:00)  

So not directly from general counsel's but we've had quite a number of law firms who have really asked about it. And a couple of law firms have told us that other businesses or the banks have seen it work well at MUFG. And they're looking to replicate similar structures, which is great. Yeah, there's no kind of bigger compliment.


Scott Brown  (16:20)  

I absolutely, yes, very forward thinking. Excellent. And I wasn't moving from city to MUFG.


James Morgan  (16:27)  

Probably the biggest difference is maybe the Japanese cultural difference. I mean, they're both enormous banks. City is in this region, this country, I guess, a more well-known brand than MUFG. Whereas MUFG is very much Asia driven bank, I guess. So understanding and appreciating those cultural differences, but also appreciating many of the similarities. I mean, big banks dealing with the same products, dealing with the same regulators in this region, many similarities as well. Like any big organisation, there's bureaucracy, to which you have to learn to navigate. But I think in terms of the Japanese culture, I love the respectful nature of it, there is a big focus on maybe more consensus driven decision making, rather than in the UK and in the US. And in particular, it's much more about a kind of top down individual accountability and individual, more directional style, I guess. Where is it at MUFG. I think there's a recognition, they are the biggest bank in Japan, but they want to be a full service universal bank around the globe. And what works in Japan doesn't necessarily work and adapt to every market in which is operating. So I think executives at MUFG recognise the need for adaptability, and have been very open minded. It's very motivating to be part of that, because you really feel like one person can add enormous value because there's some low hanging fruit and you can spot it and you can change it. Yeah. And that's not true in in all organisations. So I've really enjoyed that. The furniture is nice. So my first interview, I came back home, my wife said, How was the interview, I said, I don't know how the interview went. But I really liked the furniture, because it was all sort of Japanese style. So devilishly minimalist. And as I said at the start, I love karaoke. So it's a nice match for me.


Scott Brown  (18:52)  

Lesson three,


James Morgan  (18:53)  

Lesson three is be patient. I think there is a lot of pressure in society at the moment. And for some time, I think to to achieve and achieve things quickly, where more and more and instant generation I guess. But I think a legal career is a is a bit like climbing a mountain. Sometimes you have to sidestep it. Sometimes you have to move down a little bit in order to move up. And sometimes you get helicopter moments when someone overhead comes down and swings down the ladder and moves you up the mountain much faster. I think rather than focusing on promotion and where you're going to be in 10 years time, just sort of be patient, build your skill set, say yes to things you never know what opportunities will come along. I genuinely didn't think 10 years ago that I was going to be in this position. At this sort of stage of my career. I was lucky enough that I for example, have the role in Amsterdam that I talked about And that was a head of legal role. It allowed me the ability to demonstrate, I guess, my generalist skill set, yes. Which then helped put me in the running when I was interviewing for for my current role, but I didn't have that in mind. At the time I just, I just said yes to things was was sort of willing to see the direction that life and my career took, I guess.


Scott Brown  (20:26)  

Yeah. Do you always have that patience and understanding, 


James Morgan  (20:29)  

Definitely not 


Scott Brown  (20:30)  

Slaughter and May. That was you're


James Morgan  (20:32)  

Definitely not. So when I left Citi Group I left for for another organisation, I didn't stay there for very long, partly because I think I left for the wrong motivations. I sort of left because I thought this would get me promotion faster, I thought I would get paid faster. But actually, I found that I didn't enjoy the work as much, right? It wasn't as broad it wasn't, you know, I quite liked what I guess I call whack a mole. So the fact that there's issues springing up all the time, and you're having to deal with them and firefight them. That was exciting to me, and energising to me, I like the fact that I could come in to work and not really know how my day was going to pan out. And I think I recognise that more through the mistakes of taking other roles and doing that for the wrong reasons. So it's certainly not something that is sort of an intrinsic part of my character. It's something that I've learned, because I've recognised when I have slowed things down, and not look to shoot for the stars all the time, but but just do a good job, turn up, do a good job, say yes to things, take opportunities, broaden my own education look to develop in different areas, then those opportunities have become more frequent. Yeah. Right. And it's, it's helped my, my long term career.


Scott Brown  (21:58)  

Yeah. How would you communicate that to junior mid-level lawyers who are chipping at your ankles or looking for the next, looking for the next things,


James Morgan  (22:08)  

it's, it's really difficult, I communicate in this sort of way. And so just talking about my own experiences, but also encouraging them, if they, if they want to try things, if they want to the fast progression, then put them in situations that will show them what that will be, like, ensure that they recognise some of the difficulties and the areas in which they need to grow. To do that effectively. I often say to my team, go through the promotions process. I congratulate them if they've been promoted, but then tell them that life gets harder again, because the expectations increase as you step up, so managing that ensuring people recognise that I think is really important, setting expectations.


Scott Brown  (22:57)  

Yeah, it's really valuable, really valuable lesson. I think that draws us to a close. Thank you for joining me and sharing those sharing those lessons. It's great to hear and yeah, really great to hear about the cool General Counsel position ‘cause it's quite a unique role


James Morgan  (23:11)  

Thank you for having me, really enjoyed it.


Scott Brown  (23:14)  

And thank you for listening. To hear more of the episodes and guests from past series, head over to heriotbrown.com/podcast or download from wherever you get your podcasts. Until next time, I'm Scott Brown. Thank you