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Q&A with the EIC: Mark Roellig on Building a Successful and Diverse Company

This is the first part in a two-part Q&A series from our interview with Mark Roellig, chief technology and administrative officer of MassMutual. In this part of the series, Mark talks with ACC Docket's Editor in Chief Tiffani Alexander about his career, what it means to be successful, the importance of diversity in the workplace, and more.

A long career is something to be proud of, but a career that’s been largely dedicated to developing others is something to brag about. Not that Mark Roellig, who held the title of general counsel of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual) for more than 11 years, would ever brag. He’d be quicker to give the praise to the teams he’s been privileged to lead and been a part of during his 45-year career. “It’s all about talent and teams,” said Mark. “You can rest assured that there are two questions I ask of everyone: What can we do better, and if you had my job, what would you do?” These are the questions he’s asking his new team as he takes on the role of chief technology and administrative officer at the mutual life insurance company.

Building diverse teams, and working with those who value diversity and inclusion is extremely important to Mark; he’s authored on the topic several times for ACC. Here, he discusses why the future of the legal profession must be transparently diverse and inclusive, as well as other ways the profession has evolved during his career; why knowing general business principles and your company’s business specifically is paramount to growing professionally; advising in times of change; what drove him to take on his new position; and more.

In-house beginnings

Mark RoelligACC: What was your very first position after law school, and how did your in-house career begin?
Mark Roellig: I began my career as a litigator. I came out of George Washington Law School, drove across the country, with everything I owned in my car — and I could see out the back window. I then started as an associate with a Seattle–based law firm, Reed McClure, doing insurance defense work. In 1983, I went in-house as a litigator with Pacific Northwest Bell, the phone company in the state of Washington. They offered phone service in Washington, Oregon, and a slice of Idaho.

ACC: What do you know now that you wish you knew in that first in-house position?
Mark: This is likely true for any new in-house position, but coming out of a law firm I felt that technical legal expertise was what was important. Through my career as an in-house counsel, however, it’s become very clear to me that learning the business is critical for the in-house position. I wish I had said to myself earlier, “Being a litigator is interesting, but Pacific Northwest Bell doesn’t make money through litigation — it makes money through selling phone services. So how do I get involved with legal issues around that?” Secondly, “How do I learn Business 101 so I can speak the language of the business people?”

Evolution of in-house practice

ACC: Having served as general counsel for approximately 20 years, you’ve had a front row seat to see how the profession has changed and evolved over the years. In your opinion, what has led to this evolution?
Mark: If you go back into the ‘20s and ‘30s in the United States, in-house lawyers were very well respected. This was especially true of the general counsel, who was paid nearly as much as the CEO. However, there were only maybe one or two lawyers in the company — a general counsel and maybe an assistant GC who focused on governance and board work. At some point along the way, the view became: “We’re spending all this money on expensive outside firms, maybe we ought to build up an in-house law firm.” Corporate America created in-house law firms. I was a part of one of those when Pacific Northwest Bell combined with Northwestern Bell and Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph, and we became US West. We were a full-service, in-house law firm for that phone company. I see that as a second wave of sorts for in-house practice.

Next came the mixing and matching: Where does outside counsel provide the greatest resources, and where does in-house counsel provide the greatest resources? In-house counsel are probably the best at understanding the company’s business and strategy, but we’re probably not the best at understanding in-depth, unique areas of the law. So how do you put a team together that has both the perspective of the business and those unique areas of law? You don’t need an internal Idaho litigator in-house when you only have a rare case in that state. We don’t need somebody in-house that can tell us the great nuances of ERISA law, because I can hire a law firm that does it for 20 clients and has a broader perspective on those issues. The move from the full-service in-house law firm to mixing and matching the core competencies was the first evolution that I witnessed.

"Instead of telling clients “yes” or “no,” or calling “balls and strikes,” we’re helping the clients win the game."

The next evolution, which we’re seeing today, is using the law for more than simply answering the legal questions. Instead of telling clients “yes” or “no,” or calling “balls and strikes,” we’re helping the clients win the game. How do you use the law affirmatively to advance the business objectives? If you don’t like the laws, how do you change the laws? To attempt answers to these questions, you become much more strategic. I would say that the phase we’re in now is that in-house teams are being used as a strategic asset for the business, and that’s especially true here at MassMutual. We’re much more proactive. We’re seeing around corners. We’re anticipating what could potentially be coming, based on our knowledge of the business, and positioning the company very well.

ACC: What is to come?
Mark: In terms of the future, I think we are going to see technology used more in the law, and I see the “Uberization” of law also occurring. That’s something on the horizon.

Advising in eras of change

ACC: With the changing of any administration, comes, well changes. In what ways can general counsel help their organization navigate those changes? And further, how important is the role of GC and the legal department during an administration change?
Mark: Let’s face it — all of our businesses operate in a society of laws, rules, and regulations. With that in mind, generally coming out of the general counsel’s office are levers that can be used to advance the business. One needs to understand where the public policy is in order to use the appropriate levers.

And appropriate levers, at times, include litigation. Further, if current laws or regulations don’t work for your business, in-house counsel can potentially change those. One thing to keep in mind as you look at the laws and regulations is that you must be careful, because even if a law or regulation is an impediment to the business, it can be a competitive advantage if your enterprise is better at executing compliance than your competitors. To understand the legal and regulatory impediments or benefits, and either work to defeat or change them or work the processes, again, the lawyers should be involved.

Lastly, which is nearer and dearer, the role is important with respect to issues around public policy. And even if it is the legal thing to do, we need to ask, “Is it the right thing to do?” When it comes to changes in administration or to issues in our society, we can get actively involved and help the business interest. MassMutual was one of the first companies to sign on to the amicus brief that came out of the Massachusetts’s Attorney General’s Office arguing that DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act, was unconstitutional. We felt that that law caused us to discriminate against our gay and lesbian employees, which was totally inappropriate. We joined in that, and we all won at the Supreme Court.

"To be aware of what’s happening in the public policy arena; to take affirmative steps, does advance the business."

Also, as it relates to the HB2 issue in North Carolina, we have been extremely vocal in our assertion that it is a bad statute: It’s bad for business and it’s bad for our employees in North Carolina. And we think it should be changed. To be aware of what’s happening in the public policy arena; to take affirmative steps, does advance the business. Frankly, as you can hear, I’m a broken record on this: it’s all about talent and teams. So to the extent you can attract or retain employees, based upon some of the positions you take in the public arena, is incredibly valuable. MassMutual is — and always has been — committed to our people and diversity. It’s a way that we can continue to advance our business and support our policyowners, customers, and employees.

ACC: In a previous CLO interview, it was mentioned that CFOs, for example, often ascend to the role of CEO or COO, but that you see general counsel make this move less often. What is your take on lawyers taking on other leadership roles?
Mark: I think you’re going to see more and more of it. Again, in the past, lawyers were viewed as technical experts on legal issues. Now, in-house lawyers are more business-focused, and I believe you’re going to see more opportunities in other areas of the business. Pacific Northwest Bell sponsored me for my MBA at the University of Washington. And most general counsel of the future will have MBAs, as they just need to better understand business. Further, back to the points earlier about how you lead a legal operation in Corporate America now, interpersonal and leadership skills are much more important. Being good at business and at leadership are things that make for a successful general counsel in the current world. With that in mind, those are the same skills that I’m using in my new opportunity at MassMutual.

To read the second half of the interview on Mark’s evolving career, go here. For more of Mark's career advice, read his essay "Lessons Learned Over My 45 Years of Working."

About the Authors

Tiffani Alexander is the editor in chief of ACC Docket.

The information in any resource collected in this virtual library should not be construed as legal advice or legal opinion on specific facts and should not be considered representative of the views of its authors, its sponsors, and/or ACC. These resources are not intended as a definitive statement on the subject addressed. Rather, they are intended to serve as a tool providing practical advice and references for the busy in-house practitioner and other readers.