Vice-president and general counsel, Danone, US
I wanted to be an attorney from a very young age. I liked giving presentations and was interested in social studies. Law seemed like a natural combination of those two.
I received an AB in history from the University of Chicago, where I read many of the great political scientists. I received a scholarship to law school at the University of Florida. It was a very progressive school where at least half the class were women. Obviously, no one course can prepare you for a general counsel position. The best a law school can do is to teach one to think critically.
I love contributing to the success of a business. After law school, I worked on a large insurance coverage case and realised that no matter my passion for the case, it was not the core business of the client. I always want to be at the core of a business.
I have a multi-disciplinary role today. I manage a team of 15 and therefore I need to have team-building skills. I sit on the strategic team for my company and have developed skills in business strategy. I am also responsible for the legal affairs of six business entities – all Danone US subsidiaries – so no two days ever look alike.
The business of my business is not law. Thus, I always need to think practically about how an issue may affect my business in terms of strategy, time and money. My analysis of an issue only begins with the likelihood of the success of a case. I also need to consider how an issue may affect my company both locally and globally.
Over the last 30 years, we have lost the ability to interact with each other as professionals. I often find myself having a conversation with opposing counsel where common ground can be found – only to receive a legalistic two-page letter on my desk an hour later. The personal conversation is more likely to serve both companies than the letter.
On the plus side, we have gained an army of female general counsel. Companies want diversity on their management teams and one area in which women have excelled in the past 35 years is law. There are many experienced women ready to take on the role of general counsel. It has become a way for women to break the glass ceiling in business.
Unless law firms completely move away from the billable hour, in-house expertise will only become more important. Law firms are based on a business model where the firm’s interests are often at odds with their client’s.
None of the leading firms have shown true leadership in changing this model, and until they do more companies will turn to in-house attorneys. Of course, extending the attorney-client privilege to in-house counsel in countries where the privilege is not currently extended will only serve to make in-house counsel even more valuable.