8 LATIN AMERICAN BRIEFINGS JULY/AUGUST 2017 © Association of Corporate Counsel
A New Brazil: Unilever GC Newman Debs on the
Rapid Growth of In-house Counsel in Latin America
By Matthew Sullivan ( firstname.lastname@example.org), ACC
For most in-house counsel, career mobility is a natural aspect
of the professional journey.
In fact, according to the 2015
ACC Global Census, more than
half ( 64 percent) of in-house
counsel say that they would
leave their current company for a chance to
advance their careers elsewhere.
Newman Debs, general counsel of Unilever Latin America, is a notable exception
to this statistic. Over the course of 24 years,
Debs has played a pivotal role in advancing
Unilever’s position as a household staple for
big-name products like Axe body spray, Dove
soap, and Lipton iced tea. Having this unique
opportunity has given Debs a front-row seat
to the advancing position of in-house counsel in Latin America — and more specifically
“I believe the legal community in Brazil
has changed dramatically in 25 years. Latin
America as a whole is part of the so-called
‘emerging market.’ But our strength is
grounded in our long cultural history, our
legal presence, and our footprint in terms of
production facilities,” he states.
Debs describes the rise of a new Brazil;
where multinational corporations are flocking to the country for its economic potential
and, as a result, in-house counsel are increasingly finding a seat at the executive table. To
Debs, who began his career as one of only a
handful of Brazilian in-house counsel, this is
a welcome change.
“People are beginning to see Brazil as a
center for creativity, adaptability, and innovation. And I think that has helped to shape the
opinion of in-house counsel, who are now
very valued by law firms and corporations,”
When describing his early life, Debs does
not shy away from his affinity for the country
that he calls home. During his childhood,
he spent most afternoons reading with his
mother, who was afraid of letting him play on
the hectic streets of São Paulo.
“I’m thankful to her, because now I spend
my most of my days reading,” Debs jokes.
As a teenager, his love for Brazil led him to
aspire to become a diplomat — which would
ultimately serve as a precursor to his interest in the legal profession. He enrolled in
law school at the Universidade de São Paulo,
thinking that a law degree would provide
a necessary stepping-stone to a career in
diplomacy. Halfway through his first year,
however, Debs realized that he could use his
legal education to represent Brazil in a different way.
“One day, I sat down and said: ‘You know
what, the law is much more fun.’ I thought
my career could be better served as a lawyer,”
Upon graduation, Debs joined a medium-sized law firm in Brazil and began working
in litigation. While the experience provided
him with a unique international perspective, he began to crave a more collaborative
environment. In 1993, Debs inquired about
an open job as a legal assistant at Unilever.
The decision would kick-start a two decade
long tenure with the company — albeit with a
couple of detours along the way.
“You will find that my career at Unilever is
a little unconventional,” he explains.
After three years, Debs briefly left Unilever
for his first in-house role at a telecom company. That’s when his former boss called —
offering him a position as in-house counsel of
Unilever Brazil. Ten days later, he was back at