Antonino “Nino” Cusimano is a prime example of the modern global general counsel, 2019 model. His education spans two continents and countries, with a law degree in Italy followed by a Fulbright exchange program in the United States. Cusimano did his time in private practice in London, was headhunted to work for an American company in Italy, switched to another large U.S. company before coming home, so to speak, and finally work as top lawyer in an Italian company. After helping that company, Telecom Italia, get through several legal challenges through turbulent times for business there, he alighted to France, where he now is general counsel for a high tech driven company, Nexans SA, which lays those cables that enable you to read this article.
Cusimano speaks English with an American accent, and professes to have loved his time in the U.S. He’s fond of putting systems in place in legal departments that never had them, and is active in social media, sharing his views on economics, politics, and culture. He makes close friends where he works, and accrues frequent flyer miles at an alarming rate. He found some downtime while at the office in Paris (he speaks French, too) to talk to our colleagues at MAG after a few attempts, during which emergency business took him away from headquarters. [Editor’s note: This interview originally appeared in MAG. We’re publishing this version here for our English-speaking audience.]
You’ve been in-house counsel for most of your career. Why? Was it a conscious decision out of university, or something that just happened?
I’ve spent most of my career in-house by choice. I had a stint in private practice, about five years total, in London at a U.S. shipping firm. The opportunity came to work in-house when I was headhunted to at PPG. It sounded like a real opportunity to do hands-on work, close to clients, and really have the ability to have an impact at a corporation. A more-real thing as opposed to writing memos and working on transactions over which you have little personal link to people in-house. It’s so much more. When I meet outside lawyers, I feel it’s a really hard thing for them to do, to be outside. I wouldn’t see myself in that role now. It’s a different thing altogether.
You’ve gotten around in terms of the companies you worked for.
I’ve changed a number of industries. Three large companies: PPG, I was European counsel for over 12 years, also for the Middle East and Africa. An amazing company, amazing culture. Really great products, great technology. Then I was at General Electric, I was at the oil and gas part of it [editors note, in Florence, Italy]. And then somebody offered me one of those you can’t say no propositions, to head Legal at Telecom Italia. At the time, it was one of the three largest companies in Italy, my home country. That felt like home calling, and a great opportunity. I accepted and became the general counsel and corporate secretary.
What was Telecom Italia like?
It was an amazing journey. I was there 10 years. I did some of the most amazing projects, some incredible crises. Everything that was on the palette of the modern general counsel, everything that you ought to be doing, at Telecom Italia, you did. I still have some of my closest friends from there. It was a company where I did criminal law, things I never would have done otherwise. It was highly significant.
I had to learn listing and disclosures and being a corporate secretary. Being GC at a listed company was something I had never done. I had to learn and that was scary at first.
I still remember my first board meeting. I sat in a room with some of the most famous Italian businessmen and bankers. All of a sudden there’s this young guy, who has had very little experience of Italian law, and all of a sudden, he’s corporate secretary. The entire liturgy of running a large board at a listed company was unknown to me, a bit of a jump in the dark.
I was lucky enough to have a team of very talented people at TI, some of the best lawyers I’ve met in my career. They’re close to my heart.
Tell about your days as Lexans’ general counsel.
It’s a very technology and innovation-driven company. We’re the leading tech provider in the submarine cable industry. And the company is very agile. Although it’s French, it’s very global, we have businesses everywhere in the world. And my team is global as well. It really falls where our clients are throughout the world, including the U.S., South America, in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
As a lawyer there, what are the main issues?
It’s a variety and it depends on what’s hot at the company at that minute. That’s what makes GCs tick, and that’s the main difference between a general counsel and a main partner at a big law firm. Our day-to-day life is very diverse. Diverse work, diverse issues. Yesterday, for example, we announced a major restructuring process. That becomes the center of attention, fills up my diary, and you can imagine the legal process for that.
And, certainly, the board. The board will take up some of your time for every general counsel. Compliance is also a big part of the job. We’re in some parts of the world where compliance is a significant aspect. We’re very careful and I do quite a bit of that.
What else is on your plate?
We do some turnkey contracts, very large contracts. The process control for our contracts is very well-monitored; we have internal controls for this kind of contract. That takes quite a bit of time.
As general counsel, you’re responsible for those 45 lawyers, too.
I’ve spent some time the past couple of months setting up the right processes, to manage a group so that it functions as a team. I have a real fear of lawyers practicing on their own. That will be my mantra forever. I’m a firm believer that there is risk in a lawyer practicing on his or her own. And it’s our role as general counsel to make sure that doesn’t happen.
It doesn’t mean physically putting them all together but having them work as one team. When they feel isolated, they’re in remote locations, that could seriously become a compliance issue or a weakness of some sort. So, we’re building up the right processes to work as one team. To be able to share ideas, share concerns, that’s crucial.
Are lawyers in Paris or all over the place?
All over the world. The bulk of the lawyers are in Paris and Norway. The submarine high voltage business is in Norway. But I have lawyers in Asia, the U.S., South America and throughout Europe.
Do you work much with outside counsel?
Yeah. We’re working on a project to streamline our outside counsel work. We’re working on identifying and putting together a vendor management system for our legal services providers. And that’s something I believe in, in giving feedback to the lawyers I work with, and to work on the relationship so that we can not only make it work for both, but reduce outside legal costs but increase the value. That sounds a little like a slogan, but there’s a way to achieve that. Look at what you ask your outside lawyers to do. Is there a better way to manage the work that goes outside? And sometimes going to a traditional outside firm is not the answer. They’ll take anything you send them— but are they the most cost-effective service provider for that specific work? We’re looking at that in a holistic way.
What’s the ideal number of law firms for a panel, or is that a ridiculous question?
It’s not ridiculous and in fact it’s very current. We’re debating that issue right now. The preface to this is we’re a lean company and very, very cost-conscious. More so than I think people would expect. A panel that includes a maximum of 10 firms has served me well in the past. At Lexan, we’re looking at smaller panel. It’s going to be between five and eight firms.
Can you give me names?
I can’t, because a number of firms, more traditional firms, will stay, but….
You’ve worked for U.S. and a couple of European companies now. How are they different? How are they the same?
There were a lot more differences when I started 20 years ago, when I started to work in-house. Those difference are reduced now. That’s thanks to global regulation now in place. An example is anti-bribery. Back then, you had FCPA [the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act] and that’s it. People weren’t talking about anything else. Right now you have antibribery legislation in almost every significant jurisdiction. The compliance infrastructure has converged.
I like American companies, they can be fun; sometimes in Europe we can be a little stuffy. But at the same time in Europe there’s a lot more attention to people, as human beings, than sometimes you find in America. But it’s a hard call. I couldn’t tell you which is best…
I’m not asking which is best, just what the differences are, if any.
I’m always fascinated by how you guys [Americans] learn how to type in school. And that shapes the mindset, so that makes it more conducive to being short and direct. When you type fast, you’ll do it in no time. While I will have to jot down notes, and then go to my computer and type it up. So, guess who’s winning?
Yeah, but you’re tweeting all the time and posting. I think you’re okay with typing now…
Is there any big issue that worries you a lot? Big picture, for companies.
One personal problem, I don’t know if it keeps me up. I worry about people, in the company, on my team, stakeholders. And I worry about, something I learned from my mentor: Make sure, Nino, you make a mark. That you leave the company better. I try to do my little bit wherever I work, make sure I leave my mark.