Nassib Abou-Khalil

I grew up in Lebanon when there was a civil war. I say this with a bit of embarrassment but, because of the civil war, I never completed a school year. I had to be homeschooled for a lot of the time and the school year was always interrupted. I didn’t really have, like many young adults when they reached the age of 18 or 19, a clear vision of what I wanted to do.

Culturally, I was not the child who excelled in the subjects that families take pride in their children being good at. In Lebanon at the time, parents did not necessarily take pride, especially in young boys, in being good at French, Arabic, history, geography and arts. Those were where I was strongest. I was pretty good at maths, but the science curriculum wasn’t something I was very interested in.

When things were quieter, we went to school, came back home and did very little else. When things were bad, we were hiding, often in underground parking lots and parking garages, just like what’s happening in Ukraine right now essentially – hiding from bombs and bullets. So, we had very little enjoyment in life and most of the enjoyment was at school. Now I realise that it’s not that I wasn’t good at that stuff, I just didn’t enjoy it. I wanted to do what I enjoyed, because the opportunity to do it was very scarce.

Then my family emigrated to Canada in August 1990. I was 18 years old and I spoke no English, but could understand some. I started college and started doing different things – business administration, sciences, finding my way and understanding the world outside the bubble I was in, which was war and fighting for your survival all the time.

When I went to Canada, I followed the science curriculum in college, and I did well. I could see friends and go out and do things that I had never done before in my life. I had a job and I was earning money and paying for my own things. I bought my first opera ticket and did all these things that I’d dreamt of doing growing up. It was a moment of awakening. That’s why I always say I have two birthdays – the one when I was actually born and the one when I landed in Canada. I basically woke up from a nightmare and realised there’s much more to life than I would have experienced.

I studied political science and it opened my eyes to a number of issues – constitutional, socio-economic, social – that had a legal angle. At that time at school, I took theatre classes as well, and I did a few theatre productions. I thought that being a lawyer would give me that element of public speaking but would also give me something else I was looking for – coming up with my own thoughts and ideas and being analytical and really trying to understand how law impacts society and how society impacts law.

Before I did my training at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin in Canada I did a summer internship there. I remember to this day, and it must have been about 25 years ago, being sat surrounded by boxes of files and case material in preparation for the hearing. We were representing Dofasco, which was one of the biggest steel manufacturers in the world, and they had requested that the Canadian government impose anti-dumping tariffs against some of the other steel manufacturers in Europe and China. It was one of the most interesting experiences and it prompted me to do a master’s in international trade law. I focused on the comparative study of European and North American anti-dumping laws.

Articling at Fasken was a very rich experience. I experienced so many areas of the law. I still remember doing family law. At one point I was standing in front of a judge in court arguing in a child custody case, which now I think is something that I never want to do again, but that breadth of experience was really enriching.

I had a partner who was Dutch. I followed my heart and ended up in Amsterdam. There was an opportunity to join TMF. I didn’t necessarily have a keen focus on private practice or in-house, I just wanted an interesting career, interesting work and to build an international profile. I wanted my experience to be broad and at TMF it was mix of external advisory to various companies on corporate law matters and in-house advice. That gave me the exposure to work cross-border within Europe doing some M&A work in Prague, Luxembourg and several other jurisdictions.

An international career was my intention from the beginning. That is why I studied civil law and common law. I did that combined national programme at the University of Ottawa and a master’s in international trade law. It was always my dream to work as an international lawyer working with different cultures and jurisdictions in tackling jurisdictional problems and cross-border issues.

I’ve done a lot of things that I never imagined I’d do. At one point I was sitting across a table from Saudi Aramco and negotiating a huge multi-billion-euro deal. That was mind-blowing. While at Etisalat I had beginner’s luck in negotiating the Egypt telecom licence. I also had the chance to work on the UAE regulatory policies as they were being formulated by the telecommunication regulatory authority and on the interconnection agreement between du [the UAE’s national telecom operator] and Etisalat in 2006. That was a truly fascinating experience.

Going into the telecoms space was purely opportune. People would ask me where I saw myself in five years. I had no idea, to be honest with you. I wanted to explore opportunities that I found interesting.

When people asked what my day looked like at Nokia, I said: ‘It’s not like the one before and it’s not going to be like the one after.’ One of the nicest things about my job was that I never knew what to expect.

I really believe in empowerment and trust. I believe in inclusion and respect and giving people the space to create. I fundamentally believe the workspace needs to be a positive environment, that contributes positively to people’s lives and not a drain on their life. If people are able to integrate their work and life, they will be much happier and much more creative and engaged. They will
give their best.

The geopolitical landscape is probably the biggest challenge that all companies are facing. It requires quite a lot of attention to manage the implications from a regulatory perspective. We’re also seeing a lot of emerging regulations in various areas like ESG and privacy and those have a big impact on the sector.

During my tenure as CLO, Nokia announced publicly this year that it would be exiting the Russian market. Those types of situations require very detailed and careful thinking and analysis. The legal team played a very important part, and I was very involved with my colleagues and the global leadership team discussing and weighing up the options and ways forward.

The legal function at Nokia is extremely well integrated in the business. Every Nokia leadership team has a member of the legal team depending on the area. They not only have a seat at the table, but a voice at the table.

We’re in the privileged position of deciding what we want to do and what we want to outsource. Generally, we tend to outsource low value, low impact, repetitive work; work that requires extremely specific expertise that we don’t have in-house and then litigation as we don’t have standing rights in most courts, and we litigate in so many jurisdictions. To some extent we outsource some investigations and compliance work. But in all cases, the Nokia attorneys are really in the driver’s seat, because they’re the closest to the business.

The biggest challenge in the legal sector is resistance to change. Resistance to adopt technology, to adapt to new ways of working, to wellbeing and empowerment and the slow progress on equity, inclusion and diversity that the profession is experiencing overall.

We’re a profession that is really close to society and to what happens in society. If we’re unable to reflect the society that we live in, then that makes us a bit disconnected from it. We need to be able to reflect it in order to be most effective as a profession as a whole.

Accountability should be the biggest priority. People should set equity, inclusion and diversity targets and hold themselves accountable to them. Those objectives should also be ambitious. Organisations need to make sure that the work ecosystem they are creating is conducive to progress. I speak about the profession as a whole, because I think it’s a shared responsibility. I don’t like to say it’s a private practice problem or an in-house problem, it’s an industry problem. We need to own it all together and drive it together. I’m a big believer in collaborative efforts to drive change.

I adore my little dog. Her name is Dea. I really care for her a lot. I love contemporary art and gardening. I’m also very passionate about classical music and opera and I like to experience live performances as often as I can.

Nassib Abou-Khalil joined Nokia in 2014 and was appointed chief legal officer in 2019. He left in October 2022, for ‘personal renewal and seeking new challenges externally.