Wanted: Cultured Counsel

CAI International’s vice president of legal affairs handles legal nuances country-to-country for the global shipping industry

Since its inception in 1989, CAI has increased its shipping capacity by 400 percent, which parallels a nearly 600-percent increase in global trade in the same quarter century.

After talking on the phone with Steven Garcia for five minutes, it’s easy to picture his office: a desk peppered with contracts, an in-box full of phone messages to return, and a wall with five clocks—each one displaying the current time in a key international market.

Garcia is vice president of legal affairs at CAI International, Inc., an intermodal freight container leasing and management company. CAI caters to 280 clients around the world and has 14 offices in 12 countries. “I always know what time it is in Israel, London, and Japan,” says Garcia. “As issues arise around the world, we have to be available.” Japan, for example, is 15 hours ahead of San Francisco, where Garcia is based. If he’s closing an agreement through a Japanese bank, he’ll be on the phone late Sunday night. “The sun is always rising somewhere.”

CAI owns and manages containers for large shipping liners and is one of just three publically traded container leasing companies in the world. Garcia is responsible for all of CAI’s legal affairs, including refinancing, managing multinational litigation, negotiating cross-border transactions, and managing regulatory compliance programs. Since most of CAI’s customers are located in jurisdictions outside of the United States, he counts on a diverse and
eclectic legal team worldwide.

Steven Garcia, vice president of legal affairs for CAI International
Steven Garcia, Vice President of Legal Affairs for CAI International

To lead that team, he relies on lessons learned during his time at larger companies where he managed legal divisions on an even larger scale. “The word that most characterizes my leadership is collaborative,” he says. “I have very smart and talented people on my team, and it’s my job to leverage their skills, which I do best by creating a team environment where they feel empowered.”

Individuals feel most empowered when they can offer thoughts and input without the fear of being wrong—a dynamic Garcia learned to create after 20 years at two Fortune 10 companies, Chevron and IBM. “I learned that you don’t always have to be the smartest guy in the room. Focus instead on being the best that you can be, and accept the fact that you’re going to learn from some really talented people around you,” he says. “I get the most from my legal team by asking for their unfiltered ideas. If your teammates think they can only give ideas that fit with what you already think, then you’re very limiting,” Garcia says. He’s built an atmosphere of trust in which everyone is expected to operate at his or her very best every day—and with that trust in place, Garcia can afford to take some risks.

Being international, timing and coordination are always major challenges for CAI. The shipping container company operates in Asia, the Middle East, the United States, and Europe. Garcia must always be ready to coordinate and negotiate last-minute deal structures. Negotiating a deal is always a carefully orchestrated process, and CAI’s wide footprint makes managing each detail even more critical.

Another challenge lies in understanding how to safely operate in so many jurisdictions. CAI’s main asset is its containers, and clients demand high levels of security. CAI’s responsibilities and processes can change significantly by region. Garcia needs to make sure he’s aware of the nuances in each country’s legal system. In some countries, like the United States, businesses respect the strength of the court system. In other countries, the law isn’t as respected or reliable. “The key to minimizing risk in a multinational corporation lies in understanding what happens in each country in case something goes wrong. It’s critical that one not view law just from an [American] point of view,” says Garcia. A general counsel needs to be aware of all requirements from a legal structure and know the likelihood of facing a legal proceeding anywhere the company operates.

Garcia says he particularly enjoys working within different cultures and legal systems. In fact, he’s noticing a trend. “Many lawyers are wanting to add international exposure to their resume,” he says. As more and more companies expand internationally and globalization makes everything interconnected, he advises all aspiring lawyers to seek international experience as early as possible.