Raquel Pessanha – Sá Cavalcante
- Written by: Jennifer Shea
- Produced by: Diana Carrillo
- Est. reading time: 4 mins
At Sá Cavalcante, a Brazilian holding company with interests in real estate, communication, malls and restaurants, Raquel Pessanha is reimagining how the legal department is viewed internally.
As the company’s legal director, her goal is to integrate with the business. She wants her team to not only see problems and potential pitfalls, but to carefully analyze contracts and understand how to prevent costly litigation.
“We can help the company to mitigate risks, to anticipate the risks, so we need to have lawyers as special partners of the business,” Pessanha says. “So that’s what I want to do and what I’m doing here, and I think I’m changing the company mindset.”
She acknowledges that this is an uphill battle, particularly in Brazil, where lawyers are often seen as symptoms of a litigious culture, rather than a critical part of the business. Indeed, Sá Cavalcante deals with more than 2,000 lawsuits per year, with the company’s real estate business being the main driver of that.
Pessanha and her team developed a plan to reduce legal costs through agreements and settlements. For example, they’re separating lawsuits by subject and analyzing how each court decides each request. She says this allows the team to gauge their chances of success and how much they’re likely to pay if they lose.
“With such information, we can act preventively and take actions to avoid the same risks or at least to mitigate them,” Pessanha says.
Hitting the ground running
In addition to these litigation-reduction efforts, Pessanha has been working on a compliance program for Brazil’s new general data protection law, or LGPD. Simply put, the law provides overarching regulations governing the use and processing of any personal data in Brazil.
Pessanha is hiring an external advisor to help the company understand the legal rules that come with the law—things like providing training on the LGPD’s legal obligations and developing incident response plans and privacy impact assessments. She also wants to tailor her team’s actions to each of the company’s businesses.
That Sá Cavalcante only complicates matters further.
“We had to understand the businesses and rewrite everything, and now we are deciding with the board members which company we are going to hire to continue this project,” Pessanha says.
Moreover, because the law took effect in December 2020 , the company needed to adjust its contracts as quickly as possible. Pessanha has also internal interviews to ascertain what other risks the company faces as a result of LGPD and what it needs to do to mitigate them.
According to Pessanha, ensuring compliance makes sustainable long-term growth possible for Sá Cavalcante. The company wants to expand by adding new businesses through mergers and acquisitions. It also wants to develop its landbank, or reserve of building sites in privileged locations, especially after it suffered some financial distress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to ensuring compliance, Pessanha and a team of 17 lawyers in four Brazilian states provide legal counsel to all the portfolios and companies under the Sá Cavalcante umbrella.
“For me, it is important to help my team grow and understand their value,” Pessanha says.
Guiding the board of directors
She also helped assemble Sá Cavalcante’s board of directors last January. She guided members on how to conduct the meetings, including what kind of issues they should discuss in each meeting (be it the one for shareholders or administrators), and how to understand the differences between the two.
“They are the same members in the shareholders’ meeting that we have in the other board meetings,” says Pessanha, who serves as corporate secretary for both boards. “So, it’s a challenge for them to separate which issue, which matter they have to discuss in each of them.”
Assembling a board of directors was just one piece of Sá Cavalcante’s foundation that Pessanha helped build. When she was hired, there were few if any procedures in place for dealing with contracts, risk analysis, mitigation procedure approvals and so on. She wrote policies and procedures for each of the five businesses Sá Cavalcante operates and oversaw internal training on them.
“Our policies and procedures streamline internal processes, provide a roadmap for day-to-day business and guide how the company operates,” Pessanha says. “They shape decision-making and ensure compliance with business rules and especially with the law.”
A legal director’s work is never done
Since graduating from Universidade Federal Fluminense in 1999 with a bachelor’s degree in law, Pessanha has spent her career in the corporate legal realm. She also earned a master’s degree in corporate law from Fundação Getúlio Vargas in 2013.
Pessanha worked as a legal coordinator early in her career—first for Coimex Empreendimentos e Participacoes in 2007, then for Estaleiro Jurong Aracruz in 2016. She rose to legal manager at the latter, where she oversaw the legal department and provided legal counsel to the international board located in Singapore. Pessanha started at Sá Cavalcante in 2021.
“I was invited to join Sá Cavalcante Group because of my experience with family groups and with corporate governance, because they were intending to have a more specialized legal department,” she says. “They have 40 years of business experience, and now they want to enhance the business, to grow.”
Despite all she’s accomplished so far, Pessanha still feels like she has plenty of opportunities ahead of her.
“We want to build a comprehensive compliance program, including an effective risk management program, across all the business units, and the board is supportive,” she says. “We’ve already started these projects, and plan to implement them this year.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Spring I 2023 Edition here.
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