Tuesday, August 17, 2010

On Being An FCPA Associate ... A Q&A With Rohan Virginkar

Meet Rohan Virginkar (here), a 2004 graduate of The George Washington University School of Law, and current associate at Foley & Lardner in Washington D.C.

Virginkar has a wealth of FCPA experience and in this post he describes what it takes to succeed as an FCPA associate.

Develop fact investigation skills, pay attention to detail, be self-sufficient, and develop a firm grasp of the FCPA - all good pointers to students and young associates interested in a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act practice.

It also helps to have a valid passport and to embrace unpredictability because you may be sitting at your desk on Tuesday and be in Beijing on Saturday in the often fast-paced world of FCPA investigations.

Below is my Q&A with Virginkar.

What was your first FCPA related assignment?

My first FCPA case was within the first few months of starting as an associate. I traveled to Mumbai to investigate an allegation that an Indian subsidiary of our US-based client had paid money to a local government official in exchange for his agreeing not to disrupt their business. The allegations were true, and we discovered that a manager at the company had actually handed a duffel bag of currency to the official under the guise of a "donation" to the official's favorite "charity". It was a valuable introduction to the FCPA: shakedowns by foreign government officials, "charitable donations" to potentially suspect charities; it had many FCPA red flags all in one case.

What countries have you visited doing FCPA work?

In addition to India on that very first investigation, the matters I've had the good fortune of working on have taken me all over: Angola, China, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Nigeria, Qatar, Singapore, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates and Venezuela.

Of those countries, what has been your most memorable experience?

Each country I've visited on these matters has been memorable because the people, places and work have always defied expectations and offered nice surprises. That said, having a manager at a Chinese company who we instructed to stop paying kickbacks threaten us by saying that some of the payments were going to the Chinese Triads and that he would have to tell them that "the American lawyers" made him stop paying them is definitely one that sticks in mind.

As you learned more about the FCPA, what surprised you the most?

I've perhaps been most surprised by the genuine desire of most people around the world to follow the general goals of the FCPA, even if they don't always understand the strictures and even when they occasionally get it wrong.

If you could change one thing about the FCPA or FCPA enforcement, what would it be?

I think the underlying goals of the FCPA are just, so there isn't anything about the law that I would necessarily change. In terms of enforcement, I think the lack of clear judicial guidance on a number of gray areas of the FCPA sometimes makes it difficult to advise clients, who are forced to balance their business interests with a desire to comply with the law. I'd like to see more real case law develop, which is something I'm sure we'll start to see as more individuals face stiff penalties for violations of the FCPA. The newly passed whistleblower provisions also give me some pause, because companies that have put in the resources to develop effective compliance programs with internal reporting mechanisms may now see that undermined because potential whistleblowers may see a financial incentive to make allegations, when such information may or may not be the basis of an FCPA allegation. However, it is too early at this point to know for sure what the practical effect on both enforcement and compliance will be.

What advice to you have to students or young associates interested in having an FCPA practice?

It's important for young lawyers to hone their general litigation skills. Internal investigations (particularly when they have international elements) are a different beast from general commercial litigation, but the same skills that make someone a good litigator also form the foundation of being a good investigator. You have to be logical, methodical, with an eye for detail, because you never know what the smoking gun will look like. Being flexible and maintaining a good attitude helps too. You quickly learn that things will rarely go as you plan when working abroad, and many of the technological and other comforts we rely on in our legal practices here in the US are often unavailable when you're overseas. Additionally, having to navigate the social and cultural norms of the people and places where you're doing an investigation (and the fact that you're often operating in an environment where the people you're investigating may resent you and try to make your life more difficult), can make the mechanics of actually conducting the investigation as complex as the substantive issues you're investigating. You also won’t regret developing a habit of over-preparing and over-thinking, so that when you and your group face an unexpected issue, you have already considered it, or at least have the foundation to think your way through it. Finally, learn the law backwards and forwards. When I started working in this area, one of the attorneys who mentored me told me that he always kept the statute handy and referred to it often, because the answers he was looking for were usually found inside. In practice, I've more often than not found this to be true. At a minimum, having a solid working knowledge of the law and its intricacies helps you communicate with your clients about why you may be offering certain advice or asking them to make certain changes to how they do business.

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