Hiro Kato is the general counsel of Inpex, one of Japan's leading energy developers and suppliers of oil, gas, and new energy. He began his career at Baker McKenzie, primarily focusing on natural resource projects and related disputes. Kato joined Inpex in 2013 to establish its legal department, and approximately 10 years later, the team has expanded to include over 30 qualified lawyers in Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Norway, and Abu Dhabi.
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ALB: Tell us about your legal career so far, and what led you to taking up this role. Can you briefly introduce your company?
Kato: Inpex is one of Japan’s leading energy companies with its origins in oil and gas exploration and development. More recently, it has entered the alternative energy business, including solar, wind, geothermal and hydrogen and ammonia.
I joined the company in August 2013, after spending almost 10 years at Baker McKenzie in Tokyo and Chicago, where I focused on natural resource projects and related disputes. Despite INPEX’s size and global portfolio, it did not have a dedicated in-house legal team when I joined, and to start a legal department from scratch was too unique of an opportunity to turn down.
ALB: What have been some of your highlights from your time in charge? And what are some leadership lessons you have learnt?
Kato: The greatest highlight of my career to date at Inpex is to grow and develop the team from only one in-house lawyer to the high-performing and award-winning team it is today.
I credit the success of our team to members’ dedication to high level of performance through their hard work, and their firm belief in our core values and culture of collaboration, integrity and camaraderie, both amongst the team as well as with our commercial colleagues.
It is my duty not only to demonstrate these values daily but also to help each team member succeed in their professional career.
ALB: What are some of the big challenges the business has been facing in the past few months, and how are you looking to tackle them?
Kato: One of the big challenges was energy transition from fossil fuels to green sources. For the past few years, the team has been proactively involved in supporting the company in its energy transition. Specifically, we helped to implement significant growth of our renewable businesses through the acquisitions of international and domestic renewable projects and the divestment of non-core oil and gas projects.
ALB: When it comes to cooperating with external lawyers, what qualities or capabilities do you believe are the most critical to the work and a sustainable long-term cooperating relationship?
Kato: We are still a relatively small team, considering the company’s size and global portfolio. As such, we are grateful for the support from our external counsel on various matters. The firms that we have strong relationships have genuine industry expertise and fully understand our business.
ALB: How would you describe your strategy for the legal team?
Kato: The strategy is to focus on “Big Rules,” which include commercial mindset in helping the business side solve legal issues as well as service mentality. By ensuring not only being legally sound but also timely and pragmatic, we have helped our commercial colleagues and senior management achieve their commercial and business objectives while the company's interests are well protected.
ALB: How important is the company’s culture, according to you? What kind of internal culture are you looking to foster both within the team and your business as a whole?
Kato: It’s very important. We are a flexible and non-hierarchical team with diverse backgrounds and lawyers from six jurisdictions. We proactively participate in and support the realisation of a healthy, psychologically safe, and inclusive work environment in the company by conducting training and seminars regarding mental health, psychological safety, LGBTQ rights, and diversity and inclusion, and other initiatives supported by the company.
ALB: On that note, how would you describe your hiring and talent retention strategy? What kinds of lawyers would make the best fit for your team?
Kato: We have continued to build our in-house legal team based on the philosophy of hiring lawyers with significant top-tier private practice experience in the energy industry across a broad range of practice areas such as project development, M&A disputes, construction and trading. This policy has allowed us to provide cost-effective legal support to the company vis a fairly small in-house team who are able to manage complex transactions and disputes independently while working collaboratively with external counsel for bespoke specialist legal advice where necessary.
ALB: Where would you like to see the team five years from now?
Kato: Our plan is to continue to expand the team both in Tokyo as well as abroad in our core geographic areas. Given the current level of seniority of the team, we hope to add bench depth to the team by recruiting, training as well as organically developing younger lawyers to ensure we have a sustainable legal organisation for the future.
ALB: What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Kato: The best piece of advice I received about the legal profession is the legal industry is a service industry, and in order to excel in that, I need to always remember the importance of clients’ needs and anticipating the needs as well; continually learning and improving skills; being grateful for the opportunity to serve; and always striving to deliver.