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Straight to In-house: Dennis Garcia on the Evolution of Corporate Law

The path to in-house practice is a unique one. Traditionally, lawyers may make this move after a stint (or two) at a firm or perhaps following a clerkship for a judge, or work with a government agency. Or some move in-house after working with a client so closely that the thought of working for them becomes more attractive.

No matter the path to in-house practice, the fact is that while many graduates still end up in firms initially — according to 2016 statistics compiled by the Section of Legal Education and Admissions of the American Bar Association (ABA), 45.5 percent of graduates obtained positions with law firms while 13.5 percent obtained positions in business and industry — the legal profession is changing, especially as it relates to the traditional firm model. This means that law students are considering in-house careers earlier, and many organizations are working to attract and hire directly from law schools.

In this series, ACC will explore this trend through interviews with — and topical articles by — new attorneys who have made the move to in-house practice, as well as the in-house counsel who hire and train them.

Direct to in-house and the path to GC from the hiring attorney — Also a straight to in-house attorney 

Dennis Garcia, assistant general counsel at Microsoft, began his legal career in-house at IBM over 20 years ago. Here he talks about his in-house journey, outlining the program he went through at IBM as a law school graduate, offering insight for corporate departments perhaps considering a similar initiative, as well as what attorneys who choose a “straight to in-house” path can expect, the evolution of corporate practice, and more.  

Background and in-house beginnings

Dennis Garcia ACC: Can you tell us a bit about yourself — where did you grow up, what schools did you attend, etc.?

Dennis Garcia: While I have been living in Chicago for a long time, I consider myself a native New Yorker as I have spent the first 20+ years of my life living in the Empire State. I was born in New York City in the Bronx and grew up in the New York City suburbs. I attended Binghamton University, formerly known as SUNY-Binghamton, in upstate New York and attended Columbia Law School after graduating from Binghamton University.   

ACC: Did you always aspire to be an attorney, and if not, what was your first career aspiration?

Garcia: Like a lot of young kids, I wanted to be a major league baseball player. While I was a very good player in high school, early on in college I realized that I did not have the necessary talent and drive to seriously consider a professional baseball career. Another initial career aspiration was being an architect as I have always enjoyed drawing and sketching buildings, scenery, objects, and people.

[Related: Straight to In-house: Jason Churn on His Journey to Citibank]

ACC: Did your law school offer coursework specific to in-house practice? Do you know of current law programs that do?

Garcia: While I was at Columbia Law School I do not believe they offered any coursework specific to in-house practice. However, I did take classes on corporations, copyright law, antitrust law, and tax law. In my view, all law schools nowadays ought to offer a class or classes that are specific to in-house counsel practice since so many lawyers will either work in-house or have clients who are in-house. Northwestern Pritzker Law School in Chicago offers an excellent class called “In-House Counsel: Modern Corporations” and over the past few years, I have had the privilege to serve as a guest lecturer for that class.  

ACC: I understand that you began your legal career in-house at IBM over 20 years ago. How did you come to work for the company?

Garcia: Early during my second year of law school I saw a job posting at the Columbia Law School career center for a law student to work part-time at IBM’s corporate headquarters in Armonk, New York to serve as a reader for an employment lawyer in the IBM legal department who happened to be blind. I applied for the position and was accepted. It was a tremendous opportunity for me to work with this outstanding lawyer, to gain an appreciation for the many challenges facing people with disabilities, and to learn more about working in-house.

Around that time, IBM was also accepting applications to work for their legal team during the summer after my second year of law school as a legal department intern. I applied for that internship, was accepted, and during that summer I spent time working with the IBM litigation team in Armonk and with their legal group supporting their sales teams in New York City. IBM liked my work and offered me a full-time position to work in their legal department as a lawyer after my law school graduation.

Straight to In-house

ACC: Can you tell me a bit about IBM’s program at that time? How did the company go about recruiting law students — if that was the practice — and what sort of things did you work on as a “first year” in-house attorney?

Garcia: At the time I graduated from law school in the early 1990s, IBM had a philosophy of hiring its lawyers directly from law school and actively training and grooming them for a career in the IBM legal department. Many of the IBM lawyers in the legal department at the time were hired directly from law school. My class of “new IBM lawyers” was probably between 15-20 members, and the IBM Managing Counsel’s office prepared a formal training program for their new lawyers. At the time, the IBM legal department recruited lawyers from various law schools and I remember interviewing with a few IBM lawyers who visited Columbia Law School.

In my view, all law schools nowadays ought to offer a class or classes that are specific to in-house counsel practice since so many lawyers will either work in-house or have clients who are in-house.
— Dennis Garcia, Assistant General Counsel, Microsoft

ACC: How did your coursework in law school prepare you for a career in-house? On the other hand, in what ways were you not prepared?

Garcia: While Columbia Law School is an excellent law school, I am not sure my legal education really prepared me for a career in-house immediately after law school. In hindsight, I wish I would have participated in some of Columbia Law School’s leading legal clinics programs as that might have better prepared me for working with clients and understanding the importance of building and creating a trusted advisor relationship with your clients. I also wish I would have taken advantage of classes and events offered at Columbia Business School.

I remember that after taking the bar exam and returning to work at IBM, my manager at the time — who was our division’s general counsel — began his annual three-week vacation. At the time we were the only members of the IBM legal team assigned to that division and he told me to sit in his very large office on “Executive Row” during his vacation so that business clients could find me and to call him on vacation as needed. Looking back I am not sure how I survived those three weeks on my own, but I seem to remember that I wish I had some more experience in writing a contract, engaging in smart risk-taking, describing complex issues in a simple and clear manner, writing/speaking more like a businessperson, and leveraging technology — all of which are key skills for any in-house counsel.

ACC: What would you say were your biggest challenges as a new attorney working within a company like IBM, fresh out of law school? What about the opportunities presented that may not have been available as a first-year attorney at a firm?  

Garcia: Some of the biggest challenges as a new attorney working with a company like IBM were as follows: (1) understanding the IBM “culture” as IBM was experiencing a significant transition with a new CEO at the time named Lou Gerstner; (2) demystifying the vast array of IBM products and IBM’s many acronyms — which acronyms seemed like a separate IBM language; (3) understanding the various roles and responsibilities of my business clients and my colleagues in the IBM legal department — many of whom were located across the world; and (4) working with a very small legal team that supported our division at the time, which consisted just of myself as a new lawyer and our division’s general counsel, who was very senior and worked for IBM for a long time.

Fortunately, our division’s general counsel was an excellent role model and he invested the time to mentor and train me. He also provided me with opportunities to do “real” legal work at an early stage in my career ranging from negotiating multi-million dollar purchasing contracts with key IBM suppliers to shaping IBM’s reduction in force programs to advising on substantive legal issues pertaining to antitrust law to negotiating large professional services arrangements with key customers. I am not sure I would have obtained such breadth and depth of legal experience as a first-year attorney at a law firm.

[Related: How to Transition to a Legal Privacy Role]

ACC: What led you to Microsoft? Can you tell me a bit about your current position —what does your typical day look like?

Garcia: After working for IBM for five years I spent another five years working in-house at Accenture — another leading technology company with a great legal department. After working in-house at Accenture, I joined the Microsoft legal team in late 2002. For the vast majority of my time at Microsoft, I have served as our lead lawyer for our US field legal team supporting the sales, services, marketing, and operations teams in our US Central Region territory. Several months ago, I assumed a new and more strategic role as our lead Digital Transformation and Enterprise Services attorney on our US field legal team.

I am also responsible for the readiness and training of the approximately 40 legal professionals on our team, and for driving an initiative on behalf of our US field legal team whereby we are building deeper relationships with the legal and compliance professionals as our customers. As part of that initiative, my teammates and I actively message how Microsoft earns trust by being laser-focused on data security, data privacy, compliance, and transparency in connection with our Microsoft cloud solutions.

Some of the matters that I may work on during a typical day could be as follows: negotiating a multi-million digital transformation contract with a major enterprise customers prepping for my participation on an upcoming panel discussion on artificial intelligence and the law at a continuing legal education conference, having a one-on-one mentoring discussion with a junior lawyer on our team, helping develop newer contract templates and best practices to Microsoft’s customer-facing contracts, delivering training via Skype for Business in Microsoft Office 365 for my business clients on evolving areas of the law such as data privacy and cybersecurity, and facilitating a session on management and leadership to the lawyers on our team who are new managers.    

The evolution of corporate practice

ACC: Much has been said about the evolution of in-house practice. You’ve actually lived through much of that evolution and likely have a unique perspective on what has changed over the years. In your opinion, what has led to the “evolution of in-house counsel?” And further, what’s next?

Garcia: An outstanding book for all in-house counsel and prospective in-house counsel to read is the The Inside Counsel Revolution: Resolving the Partner-Guardian Tension by the former and legendary General Electric General Counsel Ben Heineman. In that book, Mr. Heineman does a great job describing the “evolution of in-house counsel” and the growing prominence of the in-house counsel role as critical trusted advisors for modern companies.

Mr. Heineman also outlines the important dual roles of in-house counsel as both partners and guardians to their business clients and respective companies. I believe that nowadays in-house counsel should also embrace a third role that is more public facing as ambassadors for their companies. Social media provides in-house counsel with an excellent platform for in-house counsel to assume that external leadership role.

Finally, all in-house counsel and legal departments need to be open to embracing change and accelerating their legal team’s digital transformation efforts by leveraging leading technology like cloud computing solutions, collaboration tools, artificial intelligence, data analytics, etc. I believe that technology is a lawyer’s best friend as it provides a foundation to deliver even more impactful legal advice and counsel to clients.    

I believe that technology is a lawyer’s best friend, as it provides a foundation to deliver even more impactful legal advice and counsel to clients.
— Dennis Garcia, Assistant General Counsel, Microsoft

ACC: From government interventions to breaches in security — in-house counsel are tasked with not only keeping the “company” safe and compliant, but also with protecting the C-suite and themselves from personal liability. That said, what are the most challenging aspects of being in-house counsel today?

Garcia: Here are a few challenging aspects of being in-house counsel nowadays: (1) many in-house counsel are “generalists,” which requires them to keep abreast of an ever-changing legal landscape of new laws and regulations across the globe; (2) constantly demonstrating to your business clients the unique value-add that you can provide to them as a trusted advisor; (3) being able to do more with fewer resources; and (4) ensuring that you and your teammates are not stuck in your respective silos by developing a way of working that is based on active collaboration, inclusion and learning from others.  

Career and advice

ACC: Do you ever wonder how different your career would be had you not started in-house?

Garcia: Not really. Being a big baseball fan one of my favorite quotes is this one from baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige: “Don’t look back. Something might be gaining on you.” In addition, most of my law school classmates started their legal careers in “Big Law” and many of them seemed to be miserable with the very long hours and their lack of quality of life. I am very fortunate that I started my legal career in-house and have had the opportunity to work in the excellent in-house legal departments of these three leading information technology companies: Microsoft, Accenture, and IBM.

ACC: Do you currently mentor any new in-house counsel? How important is mentorship when it comes to young attorneys entering a corporate legal department?

Garcia: Yes, I do. It is part of my current role as I am responsible for the readiness of our US field legal team. Actively mentoring and effectively onboarding new and younger lawyers entering a corporate legal development is absolutely critical to create a high-performing legal team and to develop a culture of inclusion. My Microsoft teammates and I take our mentoring responsibilities very seriously as we help develop and mentor the next generation of legal talent for Microsoft. As experienced in-house lawyers we also need to be open to “reverse-mentoring” as I have learned so much over the years from our newer and more junior members of our legal team.  

[Related: 3 Ways to Build a Professional Brand Beyond Your Job Title]

ACC: What advice do you have for law students considering a career in-house? How can they get their foot in the door?

Garcia: Here is my advice for law students considering a career in-house and to get their foot in the door: (1) constantly network with others in the legal industry and try to meet one new person every day; (2) build a compelling profile on LinkedIn — the world’s largest professional network — and actively use LinkedIn as a tool to learn and build relationships with others; (3) always differentiate yourself and clearly articulate to potential employers what sets you apart from others; (4) consider developing a specialty in key substantive areas like data privacy and compliance since every company nowadays is a data company and every company needs to keep ethics and compliance top of mind; and (5) demonstrate high proficiency in these 21st century lawyer skill-sets: technology, process improvement, project management, knowledge management, and data analytics.

About the Authors

Tiffani R. AlexanderTiffani 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.