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What I Needed to Become GC

Author’s note: Please be advised that neither this posting, nor its content, is in any way affiliated with, nor does it contain any belief, information, opinion, etc. of CU Direct Corporation. This is a personal article.

As a young dancer in college, my feet were literally knocked out from under me when I was run over by a car and had my heart stop twice. Battered, with multiple crushed and broken bones, a cracked cranium, and unable to walk for more than six months, I developed a survivor mentality as well as a live-for-today perspective.

I had to learn to walk again — going back to college first in a wheelchair, then a walker, and finally with a back brace for almost a year. I gained a life-changing perspective from that experience that carried me through law school and my professional career as general counsel.

Moving forward despite these obstacles, pushing through painful points, allowing those around me to assist when needed, staying optimistic, and having a sense of humor are all aspects of my recovery that stay with me and enable me to be a better general counsel.

Most lawyers remember their first year of law school, commonly referred to as 1L. This is a time of indoctrination, Socratic method, and a weeding out process. There are memories of certain professors, classes, cases (think Palsgraff and Marbury v. Madison), and associated urban legends, including an accelerated rate of first-year attrition. Like that first year of law school, I will not forget my first year as a general counsel, which I will refer to as “1GC.”

As the term implies, general counsel should know generally about most aspects of legally counseling a business. Being in-house, as opposed to outside counsel, allows you to understand the day-to-day operations in a way that lends itself to valuable “before” and “after” advice.

In prior positions, every time a GC would throw something new at me, I dove in to really understand the legal and practical concepts and consequences. Partnering with your internal clients and stakeholders is imperative.

Without a good line of communication, it is difficult to provide meaningful advice. As my lawyer dad used to tell me, anyone can look up the law, but not everyone can spot the corollary problems or apply the law to the factual situation and support a client’s best interests.

After holding an associate general counsel position for several years, I moved to a new company, and hit the ground running as GC in late September 2018. Within the first 30 days of my 1GC, I was working on two simultaneous asset purchases, set to close on December 31.

Meanwhile, we filed a litigation claim, and had a share offering. Insurance policies were up for renewal, and certain audits were underway. Having to build relationships — and trust — to facilitate information exchange, factored heavily into the daily mix. It was like driving a Porsche 918 Spyder off the line: 0-60 in 2.5 seconds.

Fortune smiled upon me, and I have worked, and continue to work, with amazing people. As I grow older in the workforce, the importance of this becomes more apparent with each passing day. A former general counsel, who mentored me early on in my career, provided sage advice on two separate occasions:

  • You don’t have to be an expert in everything. Surround yourself and engage in meaningful communication with subject matter experts; and
  • Never chase only the money. The company and people will make or break your daily work life. (If you hate your job, it doesn’t matter how much they pay you.)

My prior work in the legal field as regulatory counsel and associate GC helped prepare me for tackling obstacles and finding solutions as GC. During that time, I learned the following lessons:

Connect with experts

When I first took on vendor contracts, my GC connected me with a high-profile outside counsel partner who was a contracts expert, so I could run my redlines past him, and he provided input until I felt comfortable.

Learn the business

When I was given client contracts, I sat with the business folks to understand their concerns and tolerances before attempting to negotiate with our customers.

Engage with outside counsel

When the legal department needed more tech specific guidance on IP portfolio management, I spoke to executive management, then went out to market and had several IP firms give us their dog and pony shows so that we were getting the needed legal advice for certain IP. An internal site was set up to track and monitor IP, as well as trigger any renewals or updates. The domains alone numbered over a thousand, so monitoring these was key.

Have diverse input

When going through internal reorganization (mergers and dissolutions), I met with finance, tax, tech, and business internal partners to find out what went right, and what could be improved. The result was a monthly gathering of strategic members from each of those groups to review pending and potential reorganization. We found this beneficial in ensuring that each group had input, and the organization was advised of any issues (benefits or adversities) that may occur due to the transaction.

Prior jobs, not in the legal field, have also provided a solid foundation for various situations and problem-solving. Among many other things, I have also worked as a:

  • Waitress (developing people skills),
  • Music performer (reading your audience),
  • Mobile dog grooming operation (understanding what you’re working with),
  • Contract manager in aerospace (fielding a myriad of regulations),
  • Candle seller (appreciating the importance of ambiance),
  • Creative for an advertising agency (knowing your main selling point),
  • Mortgage loan officer (accepting what you’re not good at), and
  • One-shift stint in fast food (realizing what you don’t like to do).

So, what are some key points from my 1GC?

  • It’s all about relationships. I know this from prior experience, but at this level, the concept is on steroids. One step forward, two steps back if you do not have the right players on your team.
  • Ensuring that the various divisions within the corporation understand the importance of open communication with their general counsel. Better to know about things earlier rather than later.
  • While too much bureaucracy can mire progress, certain forms for intake and assessment, as well as processes, can speed things up by bringing vital issues to the forefront that could otherwise be a cog later in the process.
  • Knowing your organization’s acceptable risk parameters. One-offs are not as easy to manage at an operational level, which applies to both the client as well as vendor situations.

I am a GC. I am also a wife, mom, daughter with an aging mother, Girl Scout leader, singer in rock bands, and a two-time silver medalist in national pole sport competitions. My current personal goals are helping my son with his college applications, and getting my new album released soon. It has been an unexpected journey.

I do not know anyone who identifies with only one area of their life. Each facet of my life flows into another, and soft skills such as active listening, perseverance, tenacity, and being polite are needed with equal importance as those that are career specific. I learn from every experience and carry it with me. I am thankful for the opportunity to assist colleagues, support clients, grow the company, and continue to mature as a lawyer and as a person.

1GC has been a year of trial by fire … burn, baby, burn.

About the Author

Erin WilsonErin Wilson is at general counsel at a software technology company, CU Direct Corporation. She was an ACC SoCal Rising Star Honoree in 2012, and nominee for the Orange County Business Journal’s Women In Business award in 2013 and 2014.

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