An interview with a General Counsel (and best selling author)
They say there's a book in everyone, but not everyone goes out and publishes it. In the case of AIG lawyer, Peter Gregoire, not only did he write one, he has written and published several, and he's still going strong! His fictional legal crime novel, Article 109, quickly became a Dymock's bestseller. And the recent follow-up book, The Devil You Know, is now out in all good book stores and Kindle. Annie Tang of Star Anise chats with the Proverse Prize winner and charming and witty insurance legal eagle.
1. Peter, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule. So let's start with an 'easy question', one that so many interviewers love to ask! Please tell us a bit about yourself.
I am the only child of a mother who is half Chinese and half Portuguese and a father who is half Welsh and half Scottish. They met out here in Hong Kong in the late 1960s during the Cultural Revolution riots. Much to my embarrassment my father would always tell people that I was made in Hong Kong but produced in the UK!
I spent my childhood shuttling between Greece (where my parents lived) and the Victorian British boarding schools (or as I liked to refer to them, ‘prisons’) in which I was educated. Unfortunately, my father then lost a lot of money as a Lloyd’s Name (an investor at the Lloyd’s of London insurance market), so I spent a fair amount of my teens charming and disarming debt-collectors from the insurance industry who were seeking to take our home away.
So after university in Scotland, there was almost a strange inevitability that I would end up doing insurance law, because at training contract interviews I was able to display the practical knowledge I had learned from this experience.
That then set me on what seemed like a pre-determined path of a career in private practice in London coupled with middle-class English bliss, when an opportunity to work in Hong Kong came up. I felt, given my background, this was an opportunity to fulfil part of the heritage that I had somehow been missing, which had always left me slightly unsettled about my English life. So I put my hand up to go. Since it was the middle of the SARs crisis, I was the only candidate applying for the job.
I signed up for a two year contract. Thirteen years on, I’m still here. A lot has happened in that time. I’m now married and have a son. I have published two novels, one called Article 109, the other called The Devil You Know. I have left private practice behind, first for a job with the banking regulator and then for the General Counsel role at AIG Hong Kong, which is where I still find myself.
2. How do you juggle 3 demanding jobs successfully?
To be honest, I never concentrate on thinking too much about the “how”. I just do it. That’s part of what Hong Kong (and my wife, in particular) has taught me. I remember my time in the UK when I first wanted to turn my hand to writing. Everybody tried to put me off. All they did was tell me how competitive it was, how the chances of failing were so high, it was almost pre-destined. So why bother with all that time and effort?
When I came out to Hong Kong and expressed the same intention, however, the attitude was: “You want to write? Go ahead. Write.” So I did because that’s what I wanted to do.
No matter how busy you are, if it’s something you are passionate about, you find a way to squeeze it in. Even if it means getting up at 5am to do it.
3. Peter, what was your road to becoming General Counsel at AIG?
I don’t really know. It just happened. These days, there’s a lot of literature and training which tells you how you should plan your career path and always be looking to the next step and equipping yourself with the skill-set to get there. But for me, it wasn’t like that. Had I stuck to the plan, I’d still be in London enjoying blissful English suburbia!
Having variety in a career is something that I believe has motivated my choices. Looking back, having gone from private practice to working for a regulator and then to working as General Counsel, has certainly given me well rounded experiences and diverse perspectives, which is something I place a high value on.
4. Why did you move in-house and do you think in-house roles do give you a better work/life balance than private practice?
I really enjoy the practice of law, because it is offers a broader life skill. Life is never black and white, or right and wrong. It’s differing shades of grey and you constantly have to struggle to make the choice that best fits your principles. As people, our ethics are constantly challenged and we have to work hard to do what we feel is right.
For me, practicing law is very much like that. The problems which come across my desk are never clear cut, and you have to apply malleable common law principles to find the right answer. The job I was looking for, is the one that enables me to continually practice that skill. That’s why I think I’ve found myself in-house. A problem where the money at stake is still meaningful, but the value is not enough to send to outside counsel, can still throw up the most difficult areas of law.
"As people, our ethics are constantly challenged and we have to work hard to do what we feel is right."
As an in-house lawyer, it is your responsibility to deal with those problems. Further, although the money in dispute may be insignificant when compared to the balance sheet of the company you work for, it will be significant to the person bringing the dispute. So when dealing with it, you have to keep that constantly in mind. You have to walk a mile in the complainant’s shoes, feel what they feel, understand the impact your decision will have on their lives. Only then, in my view, do you have the right to make a decision.
That’s what being an in-house lawyer means. It’s an awesome responsibility and it should treated as a vocation because that’s what it is.
In addition, when you are working inside the client, you become part of the decision making process to solve the problem, rather than advising someone else to make the decision. So often, applying the law is just the starting point. You then find yourself discussing all the other considerations (ethics, customer fairness, reputation, operational risk) and factoring them all in to reach a decision. It’s a responsibility that has to be taken very seriously. I have never been one to advise “this is what the law says, but the commercial decision is for you to take.” No! When you are in-house, you don’t walk away from taking the decision. You embrace being an instrumental part of the team which takes the decision. That’s your role and your responsibility.
In light of that, when you go in-house don’t expect a work-life balance. Expect to practice law at its most raw and at its most meaningful on a day-to-day level.
5. After the successes of your two books: Article 109 and The Devil You Know, do you think you will go on to write more books and is there anything in the pipeline?
I really hope so. Writing for me is both a passion and a need. The simple act of putting words down on paper, helps me work through my thoughts and, indeed, expand my thinking. It’s a release as much as anything. Fiction in particular, allows me to throw off the dispassionate objective side of being a lawyer and let loose the creativity.
Will I write another novel? I feel I have another one in me somewhere. Article 109 and The Devil You Know have the same main character, Scott Lee, but at different points in his life. I am at the moment toying with some ideas that will make up the trilogy for Scott. But I’m not quite ready to commit to start writing just yet. I need the idea to ferment a bit more.
"Writing for me is both a passion and a need... It’s a release as much as anything."
Part of that fermenting process has been writing essays which form part of the research. It’s a good way of exercising the writing muscle, which is why I have started a blog on my author website www.peter-gregoire.com
6. How long does it take to write a book?
The first took five years, the second took two. The first took so long, because it was a learning curve about the process itself, which I did not need to go through with The Devil You Know.
7. So need an incredible amount of patience and discipline to counter the free flowing creativity! What advice would you give to a budding writer who has a full time demanding career?
If you are writing a novel, do a full outline of the plot first. My outline for both books was about thirty pages. This is useful because you are going to have weeks where you can’t write a thing, due to pressure of work. With an outline, at least you can come back at any time and remember where you are in the plot and where you are going. It keeps the momentum up for the marathon on which you have embarked.
8. What are your favourite books?
Oh my goodness! That is almost impossible to say because there are so many. In terms of non-fiction, My Early Life by Winston Churchill is a brilliant read and an insight into the mind-set of one of the most important people in history. The humour, the use of phraseology, the sheer “boys-own” bravado and the fact that it was true, make it a wonderful and humbling read. You ask me how I find time to write? Well Winston Churchill submitted the draft of his History of the English Speaking Peoples to his publishers after the Second World War had begun.
If he could do that, no writer has any excuse! (Also worth mentioning is that he won the Nobel Prize for Literature – not a bad “second best” achievement to have on the list, after saving humanity). Other favourites, include John Buchan’s The Thirty Nine Steps, anything by Harlan Coben and John Grisham’s The Rainmaker (another book that I am sure influenced me to go into insurance law). The Rumpole series by John Mortimer is awesome. And most recently, Andrew Robert’s Napoleon the Great is an incredible read.
9. That's a lot of books we could talk about! Who influenced you to write?
I read a lot. Reading for me has been a pre-cursor to writing. For that, I have my mother to thank. She got me hooked on this life time habit. But if there was one moment when I said, “I want to do that” it was when I read Harlan Coben’s Fade Away. It may not be recognized as one of his best works, but for me it is quite simply the best thriller I have ever read. The plot twist was so unexpected, so “smack in the face” and so satisfactory, that I felt I just had to give it a go.
However, I always needed a kick up the backside. Especially when I started writing, after all the nay sayers in my English life told me not to bother. I needed that Hong Kong “can do” attitude to come along and “smack me upside the head”. In an answer above, I said Hong Kong’s message to me was: “You want to write? Go ahead. Write.” Well, those were my wife’s words to me. She’s the walking embodiment of Hong Kong dynamism. A proud Hong Konger through and through. And I love her to bits for it!
10. I agree, it's an inherent trait amongst Hong Kongers, it's not surprising that the city is so renowned for its work rate and 'can do' approach. Do you have time for hobbies and if so, what are they?
I run and I racewalk. I have published a short essay on running and a short story on racewalking. The story on racewalking actually won a short-story competition! They are both available on Amazon under the title “Why I run”.
11. Excellent! Well Peter, this has been a very entertaining and insightful discussion on how became a GC, thank you so much. Lastly, if you could give one piece of advice to working Dads, what would it be?
Child, wife, dog, other family members, friends, you. Never forget that order of priority.
Peter is a Hong Kong and England and Wales qualified Solicitor and published crime fiction author. He lives in Hong Kong with his wife and son. Commencing his training in London, England, as an insurance litigator, Peter is now the General Counsel at AIG Hong Kong. His two main published fictional crime novels, 'Article 109' and 'The Devil You Know' are out in all good book stores, including Amazon and Kindle.