An interview with Ben Palmer – Chief Counsel at Rio Tinto
We have the pleasure of speaking to Benioit Palmer, chief counsel at international mining company Rio Tinto.
He shares his journey into the legal sector, why shifting towards in-house practice was a better decision for him and what it takes to be an exceptional member of the legal team at Rio Tinto. Offering nuggets of advice along the way, we learn some interesting aspects about what it takes to be in-house counsel at an international firm.
- What is your Background?
I graduated from law school at Université de Montréal in 1998 and was admitted to the Quebec bar in 1999. My first experience as a lawyer was as a legal researcher for the Quebec Superior court (1999-2001) and then as a litigator in a local Montreal firm (2001-2003).
In 2003 I joined Alcan, the Canadian aluminium company, as in-house counsel (Alcan was acquired in 2008 by the global mining and metals company, Rio Tinto).
The transition from private practice to in-house counsel was a very good decision for me. The practice of law in a heavily weighted business environment pushed me to apply legal concepts in a very practical manner – to corporate proposals and actions.
I was extremely fortunate to join an all-star team of lawyers that formed the Alcan legal group at that time. Our leaders instilled in all of us the ambition to meet the highest standards and to play an active role in the business.
My initial role was to support day-to-day operations in Canada, but throughout the years I have taken on many different positions, involving business units in Europe and Africa, that have enabled me to develop meaningful experiences in many fields, such as large-scale development projects, joint ventures, procurement, sales and marketing, power, mining, financing, indigenous affairs as well as general corporate and commercial matters.
My current role is as chief counsel for Rio Tinto’s Canadian mining businesses which means I am responsible for Rio Tinto’s mining assets in Canada including Iron Ore Company of Canada and Rio Tinto Fer et Titane, as well as QIT Madagascar Minerals, located in Madagascar.
- What do you think makes a good lawyer?
I view my legal training as having gone through two main phases. The first phase of anyone’s legal training is technical where the focus is on understanding legal concepts and interpreting laws and regulations. Looking back, I see this as encompassing my university studies and the first years where I acted as a legal researcher and litigator. This was a time when it was important for me to “get the answer right” in an academic sense.
The second phase of my training was focused on developing complementary skills such as strategic thinking, communication and leadership. This development began when I transitioned to in-house counsel and has been gradually progressing ever since. As a more senior lawyer, I see my role now as not only to “get the answer right” but, and more importantly, to convert legal advice into a workable plan and generate a concrete and positive outcome for the business.
Needless to say, I believe that to be a good lawyer you need to be a strong technical performer but you also need to be able to drive outcomes – to take a sound legal strategy and turn it into a tangible result.
- What makes a lawyer successful within Rio Tinto?
Rio Tinto, given its international profile, does not have difficulty attracting legal talent. It has the ability to hire lawyers who meet very high technical standards. But to be successful within Rio Tinto, certain personal attributes are also extremely important.
As generalist lawyers, we are expected to engage on a wide array of different issues. This requires us to accept a certain level of chaos and a willingness to regularly step out of our comfort zone. Having a sense of adventure is a job requirement!
Leadership is also an important quality to develop when working at Rio Tinto. To properly do our jobs, members of the legal department must become integral parts of management teams in order to craft business strategies and achieve results.
- What are Rio Tinto’s values?
I am very proud to work for Rio Tinto and the values it promotes. Rio Tinto’s core values as set out in our code of conduct ‘The way we work’, are:
Safety – caring for human life and well-being above everything else;
Teamwork – collaborating for success;
Respect – fostering inclusion and embracing diversity;
Integrity – having the courage and commitment to do the right thing;
Excellence – being the best we can be for superior performance.
These values are promoted, discussed and exhibited on a daily basis within Rio Tinto and guide our interactions with internal and external stakeholders. Our senior management demand that Rio Tinto personnel adhere to ethical business standards and to seek out sustainable commercial outcomes.
The mantra within our team at the moment is “just because it is legal does not necessarily mean it is right” and we are challenged to incorporate this mindset into our files in order to favour more sustainable outcomes.
- What do you like about working for Rio Tinto?
I am enjoying my career with Rio Tinto immensely as it has provided me with so much diversity in the types of files I deal with. I cannot imagine having such an interesting and varied practice working in a private law firm.
This diversity also extends to our team which counts roughly one hundred in-house lawyers spread across the world which definitely adds to the strength of Rio Tinto’s legal department. Perspectives from lawyers based in the UK, Johannesburg, Salt Lake City, Singapore, Perth and Brisbane are always helpful and enriching.
Another bright spot is without a doubt the general standard of excellence of Rio Tinto’s workforce. The level of expertise and knowledge of my co-workers in the various functions and operations at Rio Tinto is truly impressive. Within and between the Rio Tinto functions (legal, government relations, tax, accounting, corporate secretarial, etc.) there is a particular atmosphere of collegiality. People are often generous in sharing their experience and I have benefitted from many mentors and roles models over the years. This in turn motivates me to pass on what wisdom I have gained to newer team members.
Rio Tinto has also allowed me to discover the world over the past two decades. In addition to having spent five years as an ex-pat based in Paris, France, I have had the opportunity to visit over 20 countries. The ability to work and interact with people from different nations and backgrounds has been invaluable to me both on a professional and personal level.
- What have you been working on lately?
Over the last two years, I have been leading negotiations in two separate cooperation agreements (IBAs) between Rio Tinto businesses and indigenous communities with historical ties to lands where we operate on the North Shore of Quebec, Canada. I am very proud of the approach we took in these discussions andf the outcomes that were achieved. We were able to develop strong bonds with community representatives and create a collaborative atmosphere that allowed the parties to overcome several decades of tension. The successful conclusion of these cooperation agreements is a historic milestone and provides the parties with a framework to build a strong future together.
- What do you look for when seeking external legal support?
When I look externally for legal support it is generally to address a substantial business risk in an area of the law where we do not possess sufficient internal expertise. Having dealt with many external lawyers over the years, I have a clear preference for those that are technically sound, responsive and can communicate simply and concisely. Simple, concise communication is extremely important to me as it denotes a clear thinker. It is also important to me that external counsel appreciates the level of risk tolerance of Rio Tinto and puts in the rights amount of cost and resources towards the matter at hand. Receipt of appropriate advice faster and at a lower cost than anticipated is value and will make me a repeat customer!
- What advice do you have for young lawyers?
My advice for young lawyers is to be patient. Being a lawyer is daunting for those starting out, as there is so much to learn before truly being in a position to provide valuable counsel. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself early. Spend a number of years building up good technical experience. Take advantage of mentoring relationships that may be available to you. Continuously work on your communication skills, developing good judgment and strong emotional intelligence, and make sure you have an outlet for the stress of the job – sports, hobbies etc.
Chief Counsel, Canadian Mining Businesses
Conseiller juridique principal, secteur minier canadien
400-1190 Avenue des Canadiens-de-Montréal
Montreal, Quebec H3B 0E3 Canada
T +1 514 848 1799