by Natalie Abou-Alwan 

“No matter how tempting the deal, make sure you can still look yourself in the mirror.”

These were the wise words shared with a respected oil trader in the industry, as she embarked on her career at an international organisation. Yes, you read correctly, “she”. This incredibly intelligent woman not only made millions of dollars for that organisation, but also managed to do it looking as though she had stepped off the catwalk from Paris Fashion Week, nonchalantly advertising the latest  haute couture collection (often the sophisticated monochrome of Chanel, for those who are interested) to a sea of mostly men, sitting at white desks that held up black screens, flashing with numbers in red and green.

Natalie Abou-Alwan

In my first week in that same organisation, her elegant yet purposeful stride down the trading floor to my desk, her voice already audible several metres away above the threatening sound of sharp voices amplified through the daily squawk box from Singapore and the sparkle in her brown eyes as she began to talk me through one particular deal, told me that she meant business. She had a dilemma on her hands and wanted to speak to a lawyer who could help. Knowingly sailing close to the wind, she was adamant that she wanted to remain on the right side of the law. I heard her out, understood the challenge she was facing and knew she was in cleaner waters than she suspected. “Let me help you sort this out” were the words I offered to this doyenne sitting opposite me. From that moment on, I had her trust and she had mine.

Years later, she explained why: “You were the first lawyer I spoke to who was able to clearly separate the legal and regulatory exposure from the commercial exposure and potential reputational risk. You helped me navigate the grey areas. Very few things we do in trading are as simple as black and white. Mostly, they are grey. You could explain the white (being the legal and regulatory framework), discuss the grey and steer me away from the black in my commercial decision-making.”

As a lawyer very much used to the bravado and brawl on a trading floor, supporting hundreds of traders, business originators, financial structurers and the like, I felt it was my responsibility to keep them in the cleaner waters. Now by this I don’t mean that they were particularly looking for trouble, as we all know, there are certain deals that appear bright and juicy on the outside, rather like a golden apple. Take one bite and you know pretty quickly whether its promise of sweetness materialises, or whether it shocks by stinging the tongue. These type of deals appear highly lucrative at the outset, almost too good to be true and sure enough, their cheap veneer is often quickly scratched, cracking indiscriminately across the polished surface to reveal a mottled and decaying core.

There are those who actively look for the loop-holes, who do business by scrapping at the edges to make a quick buck, indifferent to any legal restrictions, let alone principles. Those are not the traders or commercial teams I know and respect. The best of them are the ones who know when to speak to their lawyers, who listen (even when they do not like the advice) and who respect professional boundaries. The most successful traders don’t just trade an asset (whether it be commodities, equities or a financial underlying), they trade on their reputation. The more you are prepared to swim in the black, the less you are likely to be relied on as a counterpart long-term.

This idea of being able to look yourself in the mirror is clearly subjective. But for me, it’s not just about being able to look at yourself, more importantly, it’s about liking what you see. I don’t necessarily mean aesthetically, although as they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder! For those of you old enough to remember the American sitcom, Happy Days, its protagonist, The Fonz, springs to mind in his jeans and black leather jacket, covering a crisp white cotton T-shirt and looking admiringly into a mirror for a couple of seconds, before realising that the reflection was, to him at least, perfection. Rather, I mean ethically.

For some, who have been navigating the grey for so long that they sail deeper and deeper into it, making it almost impossible to discern the dark grey from the black, ethical lines have already started to blur. Sometimes this is intentional. But more often than not, it is a result of small and often subtle shifts in moving the goal posts, to such an extent that the ethical lines completely disappear. To put it another way, the moral compass has broken and it is usually too late or too difficult to sail back to a safe berth. They have not taken the time to pause, breathe and take a step back to look at themselves in the mirror. Some companies choose to operate in this way, conditioning their employees to keep sailing without planning for storms, sharks and pirates. As we know, corporate culture plays such an important part not just in the way companies do business, but also in the profound impact it can have on its people.

There are however others, who like me, have worked for decades in the grey, analysing its fifty shades (sorry, I couldn’t help myself!) and collaborated closely with their commercial teams to steer clear of the darker waters. It is these lawyers who are energised by the intellect of their commercial counterparts, buoyed up on a daily basis in the knowledge that they are adding to the success of the businesses they support and ensuring they continue to sail through the cleaner waters.

These are the lawyers who are able to look in the mirror, head held high, sometimes exhausted, but always clear that they can look at the reflection, even take a step back and still like what they see.  Happy days indeed.