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Q&A with the EiC: Chris Mendoza’s Unconventional Path to Citibank Legal

“Just because it’s not the traditional path, don’t be afraid of it.” 
C hristopher Mendoza in many ways embodies the “American Dream.” Born in the United States to immigrant parents, he spent several years of his childhood in Guadalajara, Mexico, and upon returning to the United States had to learn English. Through hard work and the support of his large, entrepreneurial family, Chris would go on to be the first of his family to go to college, and later law school. His path to Citi’s legal department as senior counsel wasn’t exactly a straight one, but to hear him tell it, he’d have it no other way.

Here, Chris talks about his ongoing in-house journey, how to address challenges in a rapidly changing environment, straight to in-house lawyers, and more. 

Background and Citigroup

Chris MendozaACC: Tell me a little bit about your background.  
Christopher Mendoza (Chris): I started off at the University of Arizona, but transferred to Chapman University, a small private school in Orange County, CA to be closer to family, graduating with a BA in political science. And then, having always wanting to go to law school, I sent applications across the country and decided to go to Cornell Law School. I think it was the first time I’d been exposed to the cold weather. As a California kid, the cold weather was definitely shocking. I recall sliding all over the place because I was walking around with Chuck Taylors, not having the proper clothing, just freezing and wondering what I’d gotten myself into! But after the first day of class and meeting my classmates, I was like, “Okay. This is why I’m here. This is why I picked Cornell.” I also studied abroad during law school at the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, which is a Catalonian university.
ACC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Chris: I knew from a very early age that I wanted to go to law school. Having grown up in an entrepreneurial family who owned a successful, moderately sized construction company, legal disputes were an unfortunate part of it. The lawyers were always involved. They were our trusted legal advisors. I wanted that role. It would be the best way for me to meld my business acumen with my desire to help people through these legal issues. I wanted to be that person that the business people could  turn to for help in navigating both the business side and the legal side.

ACC: Did you begin your legal career with a firm?
Chris: I graduated during the recession, and was deferred by Katten Muchin Rosenman. Firms were collapsing left and right; businesses were filing for bankruptcy, we weren’t sure what was going to happen. In a matter of months, it went from everyone is deferred to half of the associate class is deferred and the other half had their offers rescinded.

So, immediately after graduation, I went back to the family construction business. I always thought it was kind of funny, because here’s this Cornell law graduate driving around in a dump truck. But, it helps build character and work ethic. In 2010, Katten Muchin Rosenman [Katten] ended the deferral and asked me to join their financial services department. So, Katten was my first legal job after graduating, but there was a lot in between!
“I always thought it was kind of funny, because here’s this Cornell law graduate driving around in a dump truck. But, it helps build character and work ethic."
ACC: What sparked your interest in in-house practice, and what led you to Citigroup?
Chris: I initially started at Katten, which was a big firm, dealing with very complex issues. As you know, at a typical big firm, everything’s rushed; it’s the pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie, right? It wasn’t the right environment. I wanted something different, so I joined a boutique law firm, Henderson & Lyman, which is now a part of Greenberg Traurig. Henderson & Lyman was great, but I wanted to make greater use of my business skills, so I started looking for in-house positions.

I was hired as counsel [at Citi]. I was drawn to them because of the opportunity to work for a financial institution with a global footprint and a variety of products, which they were developing and expanding upon. Not only that but once I interviewed with their team — the Securities Services/ Fund Services team — I knew that this is where I wanted to be. These are some of the best people I’ve ever worked with.

[Related: Ready to Dive In: How to Prepare Lawyers for In-House Careers]

ACC: As senior counsel at Citi, what does your typical day look like; how is your team structured?
Chris: I’m part of the North America Securities Services/ Fund Services team. There are seven of us, and we run pretty flat. We all do kind of the same thing: product development, contract negotiations, regulatory compliance, and general corporate work. Some of us oversee certain functions. For example, I handle quite a bit of the corporate secretarial work for the entities that perform our work, board resolutions and meetings, and also deal with the Volcker Rule. Our structure is nice because there’s always the capability to leverage some other member’s experience — so we’re not isolated, in other words.

ACC: How is Citi’s global legal department structured and how does the team manage and connect lawyers working in different areas of the world?  
Chris: The Securities Services/ Fund Services (NAM) group handles issues in North America and sometimes Latin America. If there is a regulation or product with a potential global impact, our team is working side-by-side with regional lawyers to collaborate. Generally, we maintain contact by establishing working groups with scheduled calls and designated email groups. These calls can provide an opportunity for dialogue around interesting topics or new developments.

Career — In-house counsel and transition

ACC: What’s the biggest misconception, perhaps one you even had as a firm attorney, about in-house practice?
Chris: Usually the biggest misconception is that the work is unsophisticated or not challenging. I remember when I got my offer from Citi. I talked to some of my former colleagues in private practice and they warned me about losing my skills in an in-house role. I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions. I know that not every in-house position is the same, but I can easily say that I’ve been challenged more at Citi than at any other place in my life. The work is interesting, challenging, and unpredictable. And part of it is because you’re at a place like Citi, where your goal is to deal with very important work just given our size and industry presence. Whether it’s regulatory, contractual, compliance, litigation — you’re always going to be at the forefront of these things when you’re at a place like Citi.

ACC: Some legal departments are recruiting from law schools, with pipeline programs and internships that promote direct to in-house hires. What do you think of this trend?   
Chris: That’s the trend, and I can certainly see why law departments are doing it. We’ve actually done that — one of the junior attorneys on our team is directly from law school. That said, you’ve got to make sure you have the right tools to be able to mentor the individual, and that you’re also providing them with the opportunity to succeed — thinking about how you’re going to develop this person and help them refine their skills. If you can create the right role and opportunity, it can work out well.
“Being an in-house counsel is a very important role with a lot of responsibilities so you need to continue to build your knowledge and create trust with your business colleagues, which means transforming from a simple lawyer into a business person that happens to be a lawyer.”
ACC: What advice do you have for in-house counsel aspiring to a senior role within the legal department?
Chris: Being an in-house counsel is a very important role with a lot of responsibilities so you need to continue to build your knowledge and create trust with your business colleagues, which means transforming from a simple lawyer into a business person that happens to be a lawyer. That means you have to understand the nuts and bolts of the product or the business. You need to be succinct, creative, ethical, and trustworthy. And you do that through hard work every day; that means reading industry journals and product catalogues, that means interacting with your business colleagues to truly understand the business and the fundamentals of it and what drives it, the financials and probably talking with operations to truly understand how things are done and made. Then you have to bring it all together and understand everything — that’s really how you’ll be able to get into a more senior role.  

ACC: What about in-house counsel who wish to transition to roles outside the legal department? Do you see a similar transition in your future?
Chris: Another misconception is that people are concerned about leaving the legal department, or the fact that there’s “no law” [in the new role] and that somehow banishes them from ever returning to a legal role. That’s far from the truth: I see attorneys go into other areas across the business including compliance, risk, business development... It exposes you to new things; it helps you develop these skills. As a lawyer, you think of things from multiple perspectives, which works well in areas like product development where creativity, in-depth analysis and planning ahead are all vital to success.

Personally, I’m enjoying my current role, but who knows what the future brings.

Challenges and opportunities

ACC: Change often causes challenges (a new administration, a major piece of legislation, etc.). This is especially true in an industry like yours. What’s your advice for advising in times of change? And further, how do you keep up-to-date with a rapidly evolving regulatory environment?  
Chris: It is an ever-changing environment and one where you need to be mindful how and what information you seek out and use. One particular research tool I rely upon are client advisories — they’re a wealth of information. I also go to industry events and colleagues are often incredibly useful. If I have a question about a particular field, I’ll pick up the phone and talk to the attorney overseeing that field. If it’s an IT issue, I’ll talk to an IT attorney, etc. It’s important to evaluate, determine, and implement as soon as possible. 

Some of these regulatory changes can involve, for example, operational or structural changes, so you have to start early. It may require retraining staff or building out new systems to comply with the new regulations. And these things all take time and proper budgeting. When you’re dealing with something like cyber security, you’re dealing with multiple jurisdictions that might have different regulations. How do you comply with them? What’s the best for compliance across all those regions? Not just one jurisdiction; all of them? That takes quite a bit of time; you have to involve various departments and groups. And the earlier you start on it, the better.

[Related: Q&A with the EIC: Keith H. Williamson on Advising in Times of Change]

ACC: With that in mind, what are some trends, specific to the financial services industry and beyond, that corporate counsel need to be aware of?
Chris: Cybersecurity. It used to be that attorneys could go through their entire careers without worrying about cyber issues, but that’s no longer the case. While my area is not cyber focused, it’s still something you have to be aware of, especially as there are more regulations related to  cyber and data security across the globe..

The Future

ACC: What does the future of in-house practice — and the law department of the future — look like? What role does technology play?
Chris: Technology does play a role and I think you’ll see in-house counsel look at how it may increase efficiency and productivity. Whether it’s technology in terms of a tool that attorneys can use to better communicate with each other or process things, or if it’s a tool that’s able to review agreements from the first instance, etc., remains to be seen.

ACC: What’s next for you?
Chris: As of right now just continue my career development within Citi. I’ve had offers to go elsewhere, but I’ve remained at Citi because of my bosses, the work, and supportive colleagues.

ACC: Parting words of advice?
Chris: I would say, specifically to the young attorneys, that you shouldn’t be afraid of something new or venturing off the normal path. Doing so helped me become a better lawyer in many ways and it prepared me for the position I’m now enjoying with Citi.

Getting to know… Christopher Mendoza

What advice did you learn in law school that you still apply today?
Diligence. No matter how dull the material may be that you’re reading, understand that it has a practical application to your career and just read it.

What book are you currently reading?
I’m reading a biography of Andrew Carnegie written by David Nasaw. I’m fascinated by Andrew Carnegie’s development — an immigrant with limited education who was able to succeed in a very dangerous business environment.

Name one person, living or dead, you’d love to have a cup of coffee with?
Yogi Berra, the famous catcher for the New York Yankees. He had a unique gift of giving insightful advice in a humorous fashion.

About the Authors

Tiffani AlexanderTiffani R. Alexander is the editor in chief of the 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.