As general counsel at Kia Canada, Helen Fotinos smoothes the legal road for the fast-growing Korean carmaker, which sold more than 53,000 vehicles in Canada last year. With a career spanning personal injury, product liability, and franchise law, Fotinos draws on lessons learned during her time in private practice to guide Kia as it builds its business. Advantage spoke with Helen Fotinos about the steps that led her to Kia and how she envisions the general counsel’s role at the company, as it continues to storm the automotive market.
Advantage: What was your early career like?
Helen Fotinos: Demanding but privileged. I started my career in the personal-injury and product-liability bar before moving to commercial and franchise litigation. The workload was heavy, and the hours were long, but the quality of work, the experience, and relationships fostered remain unrivaled. I’ve had the good fortune of working with premiere lawyers doing interesting, often precedent-setting work.
How did civil litigation shape you as a lawyer?
It taught me to be organized, analytical, to think strategically, and to always play to my strengths. Delivery is everything in litigation and in business. You need to know your audience: they need to respect and trust you, even if they don’t always like you. These skills are transferable to in-house practice and give you a leg up in a corporate environment where you are often called upon to quickly assess a situation, provide a risk-benefit analysis, and deliver a reasoned opinion in an effective, comprehensible manner.
You considered changing careers at one point. What happened?
I realized that there was a huge difference between the study and the actual practice of law. I grew disenchanted with the realities of private practice. So I took six months off, travelled through Europe, reevaluated my priorities, and considered my options—you need to know who you are and what you want from life before you can succeed at anything.
How does your role at Kia differ from your previous experience?
In a corporate environment, things change constantly; you seldom have control of events. You have to work cooperatively with business units and understand their needs. Effective in-house counsel [is made up of] both legal advisors and business people. Striking a balance and exercising good judgment is critical. My product-liability experience helps me keep Kia proactive in its risk-management practices, while my franchise experience allows me to contribute to the strategic development of our dealer network, helping Kia avoid some of the mistakes I’ve seen other companies make.
What has been your most demanding project so far?
We recently undertook the first major revision of our dealer agreement since Kia entered the Canadian market in 1999. This required working extensively with our business units, our dealer council, and industry associations. It required balancing interests that, on some issues, were inherently adverse in order to arrive at an agreement that could serve as the basis of a sustainable, profitable relationship for all parties.
Kia’s public persona in Canada is still developing. However, the company has long espoused certain core values, which include unbridled ambition, an uncompromising work ethic, integrity, pride in accomplishment, and humility. Our dedication to these values is reflected in the innovative design and quality manufacturing of our vehicles, and in our commitment to excellence in customer service. Kia recently put these values into action in our Drive Change campaign, which partners Kia with community-based organizations and charities to effect positive change in local communities. The campaign has been hugely successful, and we are proud to be a part of such a positive message.
How do you see your role going forward?
I didn’t join Kia to be just another lawyer. I’m always working on altering the perception that in-house legal departments are revenue consuming rather than revenue contributing. I want to expand the general counsel’s scope of responsibility and influence at Kia. I’m able to see the impact of my contribution to date, and I’m motivated by the opportunities that I still see ahead. It’s a great environment for creativity, learning, and sharing ideas. We have a vibrant, energetic team. I’ve never worked anywhere else where the future and opportunities are so bright and diverse.