June 16, 2016

1/3LY oil & gas disputes: In Conversation with Maarten Scholten, General Counsel, Total S.A.

David Leckie speaks with Maarten Scholten on risk-taking, maintaining relationships and how life has changed in Big Oil.

So overall, I would say that the number of disputes has increased at certain levels in the industry, but it is certainly not growing exponentially.

The secret to success? A borderless career

DAVID: Maarten, you have had a remarkable, borderless career which began as a law student at the University of Amsterdam, led you to a Master of Science in Politics from the Sorbonne in Paris and then to New York, with a Dutch law firm. How did you first become involved with the oil & gas industry?

MAARTEN: It was a total coincidence! When I was a young lawyer working in New York, I was part of a very international team and I met and socialised with lots of other young lawyers. A couple of my good friends had already been recruited by Schlumberger, which was headquartered in New York. They were extremely positive about life as an in-house Counsel and arranged for me to meet the General Counsel of Schlumberger, who at that time was David Browning. The meeting went very well but I didn’t think I was ready to move in-house. At the time, I was focused on going back to Holland to spend a few more years working my way up the ranks in the law firm. However, my friends were quite persistent and kept on calling me until I finally said, "Okay, I’ve had enough of private practice, let’s go!"

So, there was, in fact, no big plan to go in-house or to become an oil & gas lawyer. I just listened to friends and kept my mind open to new opportunities. The philosophy of my career has always been to take some risks and trust my instincts – sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Risk-taking, in a calculated manner, is something that can really launch a career.

DAVID: Absolutely – I very much agree. Lawyers can often find themselves pigeon-holed early on in their career and unwilling to take the risk of a move, so this is very refreshing advice.

I would like to ask you about your borderless career at Schlumberger. Having progressed from legal to finance and then to operations, your career is certainly unique. From your early days as Legal Counsel at Schlumberger, you rose rapidly through the ranks of the legal department to become Global Director of Legal Services. You then moved away from the legal department to become Head of Finance before becoming President of Schlumberger Oilfield Services ECA (Europe, Africa and CIS), and then Director of Mergers & Acquisitions/Business Development. What would you say were the highlights of this remarkable career?

MAARTEN: One thing I’m quite proud of is having been instrumental in adapting the legal function to changing business imperatives in Schlumberger and, to an extent, in Total. It was really about making sure that, as the business grew globally and became more complex, with new product lines and activities, we were always thinking about how we could best serve our internal clients, and ensuring that we kept the standards up, as we moved towards being a more global legal function.

For a lawyer, the opportunity to have a borderless career is extremely important. I explored this concept during my time at Schlumberger, where I ventured outside the boundaries of the law. It was a good experience, which complemented my skill set as a lawyer. I think it can be very useful as a lawyer to be able to say that you’ve done some work in a finance department or as an operational manager. This shows that you have an enriched understanding of the business.

So, for me the highlights of my career have been making sure that, at certain times, I took steps into the unknown, which ultimately helped to strengthen my core competencies.

DAVID: Is this something that you would encourage in-house counsel to do generally?

MAARTEN: Well, yes. What we can offer in-house lawyers in large and medium-sized organisations, is a good variety of work and mobility. This may not be appropriate or desirable for all in-house lawyers, but many would benefit from taking a step outside of their roles to observe the legal function from a completely different perspective.

Having said that, I also want to underline the importance of specialists and expertise. There are lawyers who have the skills, capability and intelligence to be very good in certain areas of expertise. We need them. On the other hand, there are others who have more of a global commercial view and who are more generalist. I think the trick is to have a good balance within the organisation and to offer interesting career opportunities which appeal to each of these different types of talent pools.

DAVID: In January 2014, you became General Counsel of Total. Is the borderless career something you’ve tried to promote within Total, or was this already in place?

MAARTEN: I think, generally, it was in place, as it is in many large corporate environments – that is what makes going in-house so attractive. Mobility is something that we are promoting more and more in today’s environment.

Where I feel that we need to be more creative is in making sure that lawyers who have in-depth expertise and knowledge in certain specialist areas, which are essential for a global company like ours, have a stimulating and rewarding career. This notion is not unique to the legal function, nor to the oil industry – we also see it in the technical community and in other industries. Sometimes the reward, or the attention, is given more to managers and generalists, as opposed to those who are specialists with deep expertise. I think there should be a better balance.

DAVID: In the legal function, how does the balance you are referring to tie in with the use of outside counsel?

MAARTEN: In Total, our objective is to do as much legal work as possible in-house and we are proud of that. However, like a large number of in-house legal departments, we turn to people like you for expertise when needed. So, finding the right balance between our own generalists and specialists and outside counsel is critical and is something we keep under careful review.