Adapting in Dubai

James Goodman explains how his experience attuning himself to the legal concerns of the Middle East helped him build up and lock down Viking Services’ global legal processes

James Goodman, General Counsel and Company Secretary, Viking Services Photo by Siddharth Siva

By December 2018, when James Goodman sits down for his interview with Modern Counsel, it’s finally cooling down in Dubai, UAE, where he has lived since 2013. The humidity is relenting, and the beaches are filling up; if you ever have the chance to see the UAE—and, according to Goodman, everyone should—come during the social season, between December and May. “I’ve had family visit,” Goodman says. “Some of them are not overly keen. Most, however, would be ready to move here. It’s the kind of place everyone should see at least once.”

Much as Goodman has adjusted to the climate of the coastal Middle East, he has also adapted to the particular legal challenges there, and he has helped companies in the region to adapt in kind. Today he is doing so as general counsel & company secretary for Viking Services, an international provider of integrated well solutions and support, which he joined in 2016, at a time of upheaval in the industry. Since then, he has helped develop the business’s legal, compliance, and secretarial functions and streamline its processes, and it now operates with the ease of a sunny, temperate Dubai day.

James Goodman, General Counsel and Company Secretary, Viking Services Photo by Siddharth Siva

Goodman didn’t begin his career in the UAE. He grew up and completed his law studies in the United Kingdom. After university, he spent a period working as a junior policy advisor on Capitol Hill, in Washington, DC. That education and experience, he says, afforded him unique opportunities in the Middle East, where he found that his British education and particular skill set were in demand. He served in a number of private roles and consulting positions across the region, but once he arrived at Viking, he felt that the oil and gas industry—pardon the pun—fueled him like no other.

“I love the strategy side of it,” he says. “In private practice, you know only your part: this is the law, this what you can or can’t do. Here, in-house, you have to think outside the box and collaborate with a wide variety of stakeholders and departments. Advice becomes less theoretical and more practical; the question becomes how to get to ‘yes.’ In other words, lawyers have to climb down from the ivory tower and start advancing the priorities of the business whenever and however legally possible to do so.”

Viking’s head office, in Dubai, operates as a lean strategic-management company, helmed by a former Halliburton executive. The head office provides support and guidance in each of the group’s operations. When Goodman came aboard, the business had recently completed a major shareholder restructuring and was still finding its footing. At that point, it became paramount to sort out the group’s corporate structure and establish comprehensive, fit-for-purpose legal and compliance processes.

“When I joined, there was nobody to pick up the work,” Goodman recalls. “All the previous legal team had left the group, and the previous management was unable to assist. We were trying to identify the structure of the group, which was complex and relatively opaque.”

At that time, Viking had thirty-six operating entities based in twenty-one territories. With such a complicated structure, introducing a suite of new legal and compliance processes applicable to every Viking Group entity was no modest challenge. Indeed, with every step, Goodman and his team discovered new complications. For example, he found no regularity in contract drafting and execution; contractual requirements were inconsistent, and contracts were executed based on diverse local and subjective parameters.

“Commercial is king when in-house, but a business should always ensure that it has reviewed, measured, and discussed the potential exposure to material risk before choosing to proceed.”

“When you have so many things coming from so many different sides, it’s easy to not follow standard protocol and include all necessary viewpoints,” Goodman says. “In fact, there is so much to execute that the business only occasionally requested advice from subject matter experts such as in-house counsel. That’s been my biggest challenge. Commercial is king when in-house, but a business should always ensure that it has reviewed, measured, and discussed the potential exposure to material risk before choosing to proceed. Because lawyers are experts in risk assessment and management, this can only, in my view, be satisfied once legal has reviewed and advised. This was not happening when I first joined, resulting in many sleepless nights.”

Today, every contract goes through Goodman or one of his team members. They review these agreements with the utmost scrutiny to best protect the business. It is important for the legal department to continue driving the awareness of contractual risk, as any material mistake can result in significant financial loss.

That, according to Goodman, is how legal helps aid the group’s business objectives and growth. During his two years with Viking, revenue has tripled, and clear legal and compliance parameters have been set that help govern how Viking does business in each of its challenging jurisdictions and guard against complacency.

James Goodman, General Counsel and Company Secretary, Viking Services Photo by Siddharth Siva

Going forward, Viking is pursuing opportunities in more countries on the European continent, including Bulgaria and Ukraine, to name a couple. The company is still, by its own admission, a smaller player, but Goodman says the specificity and consistency of its legal and commercial processes is positioning it to be competitive. When further opportunities arise to partner with large operators, the company is now on a solid footing and perfectly placed to prove its pedigree.

With Goodman now immersed in the oil and gas sector, he doesn’t foresee leaving the industry. He is always eager to continue his development and find new ways to adapt, and what’s clear is that the sector’s tendency to offer up distinctive challenges means he’ll have the opportunity to do so for years to come. “There is a strong possibility that I will stay in this industry,” he says. “I think it’s the only sector that is not fully institutionalized. You will never have the answer to every question, and come to think of it, you can’t trust anyone who says they know and have experienced everything. As long as my experiences and career continue in a progressive manner and I continue to learn, I’m happy.”

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HVG Law LLP:

“A few years ago James stepped in at the right moment in a complex structure of Viking and difficult market. With his hands-on mentality and knowledge about the oil and gas industry, he managed to handle challenging issues since then. His social skills contribute to the pleasure working with him.”

Arie Dirk de With and Caspar van der Winden, senior managers