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ACC Certification Program: Q&A With Crystal Gothard

ACC's first in-house counsel certification program was recently held in Dubai, April 30 - May 3. In this series, we spoke with some of the first participants -- and graduates -- of the program about why they decided to attend, what sessions were most useful and offered key takeaways they were able to take back to the legal department, and most importantly, if they'd recommend the program to colleagues. Read on to see what they have to say, and find out more about the upcoming program, to be held September 3 - 6, 2018, here.  


Crystal Gothard, corporate counsel at Caterpillar, started her career at a law firm, going to work for two D.C. law firms shortly after law school. Realizing that partnership track wasn't for her, she moved in-house, beginning her career with Caterpillar 10 years ago this summer. She started in Illinois with the parent company, was then transferred to Nashville, Tennessee to the Caterpillar financial entity, and finally to Dubai. Calling the transition to living and working in the Middle East "very interesting," what's more interesting is her status as her company's first lawyer in the region. Her role in Dubai is to set up their office, and with responsibility for everything from compliance to employment and contracts, attending ACC's In-house Counsel Certification Program in the region was a must for the expat.

ACC: Why did you decided to participate in the certification program - what made it stand out? And further, how will the In-house Counsel Certified (ICC) designation help advance your career?

Crystal Gothard: The reason I wanted to take this class, and why the head of the legal department was fully supportive, is because the curriculum is perfect for someone who has to manage issues like compliance, litigation, and relationships with your business unit.

How will it advance my career? Oftentimes when you start a role like this and you are the first attorney in the office, or one of only a few attorneys, you are kind of spinning your wheels. I felt that way until I actually took the class.  It has allowed me to create a strategy for the next three years of this particular assignment.

"The curriculum is perfect for someone who has to manage issues like compliance, litigation, and relationships with your business unit.
- Crystal Gothard, Corporate Counsel, Caterpillar

ACC: Can you share a key takeaway(s) from the four-day program? In other words, what did you learn or perhaps further your knowledge of during the program that you can take right back to your legal department?

Crystal: I think probably the three most important areas that someone in this role has to focus on litigation management, managing business relationships, as well as compliance – the class really kind of broke down the compliance area. It broke down the areas so that you can actually really distill down the information and learn what is going to apply to your particular organization. That's really what I liked about it. The second half of every day was the presentation, which normally I would have said, "Oh no. I don't want to have a presentation." But those exercises actually ended up helping me focus on what exactly I should be looking for: how to issue spot, and how to manage the relationship and the expectations with my business partner, because when you're in this role it becomes a dual role. You have a lot of things you have to do with respect to litigation management, and also compliance, and making sure your businesspeople are in compliance. But you're also trying to do the work; making sure that their deals go through and that the employment agreements are correct. It really taught me how to balance and focus on what's important and how to prioritize those things.

ACC: Can you provide an example of a particularly relevant session?

Gothard: I think it was the compliance section where we actually did a compliance risk assessment. Prior to this, I heard of risk assessments and even participated in a very compartmentalized way in a risk assessment. But having the ability to step back and to see the entire picture, that was the most valuable for me, as well as what I should be looking for in a different area that I'll need to address here in this role.

"Not a lot of certification programs like this exist. Caterpillar is a very, very big company, and every one that found out I was going said, "Oh, are they coming to South Africa? Are they coming to Europe? Are they coming here?"
- Crystal Gothard, Corporate Counsel, Caterpillar

ACC: This was ACC's first certification program, with curriculum developed by a diverse Education Advisory Council (EAC). The council helped to identify the essential and critical skills for in-house counsel that program addressed. That said, what additional skills or areas of focus would've made the program even stronger? Are there other skills the program should consider addressing in the future?

Gothard: It's a four-day program. I think the way it's set up now, it probably needs more refining and not necessarily expanding, although I could see ACC really tailoring it to a particular region a little more. A lot of it was US-based, and that was fantastic for me because I'm a US lawyer, I'm just on temporary assignment here in Dubai. But I think some of the class members would have liked to see things more tailored to Dubai and how things work here in Dubai. That's a difficult thing for an organization to do, particularly in a place like Dubai, where you have people from all over the world kind of congregate to work. But in other places, where the program may go, it might be a bit easier to do more research on how the law stands and is developing in that particular region. It wouldn't have to be completely revamped, but just a little more case law and how things have developed in that region.

ACC: Certifications like this one, as well as advanced degrees in general, are options for lawyers who want to strengthen their business knowledge and increase their professional marketability. Have you noticed a trend of more attorneys in your professional networks and beyond who have completed similar certifications or obtained MBAs, for example? 

Gothard: I've seen a trend of lawyers really trying to round out their business experience, mostly in the MBA area. Not a lot of certification programs like this exist. Caterpillar is a very, very big company, and every one that found out I was going said, "Oh, are they coming to South Africa? Are they coming to Europe? Are they coming here?" I think people are really kind of looking for this knowledge because lawyers now are expected to spend far more time with the business unit.

I even see that trend in our company with lawyers actually sitting in with the business on a day-to-day basis versus being in a legal department and having limited contact with the business unit. We're really trying to serve our business partners. We're seeing the business people as our business partners, not just clients, but people who need us to effectuate good business.  

"I sent ACC's business case to my boss, and she came back and said, "That is the most fantastic thing I've seen."
- Crystal Gothard, Corporate Counsel, Caterpillar

ACC: Would you recommend ACC's In-house Certification Program to your colleagues? What advice can you offer other corporate counsel who want to participate in the program, but may need to convince their GC or boss?

Gothard: I would absolutely recommend it.  I also recommend for people to look at the business case provided on ACC's website. Also look at the other resources on ACC's website especially if you have a supervisor that doesn't really understand the vastness of its resources, I sent ACC's business case to my boss, and she came back and said, "That is the most fantastic thing I've seen."

Also, I think people should understand that it really isn't a class like the bar exam.  People need to understand, we've taken the bar. This class actually hones your business skills, how to be valuable to your business, how to show your worth to your business, particularly for in-house counsel who are more of a cost center than a revenue maker. I think most people understand that distinction. What they really will get out of it is a way to work with the business and not be seen as just a lawyer that says "no" all the time.


About the Authors

Tiffani R. AlexanderTiffani Alexander is the Senior Editorial Director, Web Content & Publications of the Association of Corporate Counsel.


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