The Inside Scoop from Outside Counsel: Advice from 3 Female GCs

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Have you ever wondered what general counsel really look for when hiring an outside law firm? Three female general counsel share their insights on what their journeys have taught them and what they value in law firm partners.

Jamey Seely, GC of Gates Corporation

What do you look for in outside counsel?

Take the complex and make it simple. I want you to have the hard conversations with me. Call me and ask about billing. Ask me for negative feedback. None of us want to hear it, but you will get so much better from the one or two “hey you could do this better” than you ever will from all the happy stuff I’ll tell you. I also highly value not the number of problems you can find, but the number of solutions you can bring me, because that’s what I have to come up with every day.

How does your background play into your leadership style?

I enjoy extreme sports. I’ve run marathons across the Great Wall of China and through a wild animal game preserve. I’ve ridden a bike through the Himalayas. So I have this mantra that goes through my head whenever I’m in a challenging situation. “Well I’ve seen steeper hills and higher walls. I’ve seen animals that want to eat me that are a lot more intimidating than any room of animals you are going to put me into.” It gives you this level setting and confidence that we are going to figure this out and get to an answer.

What challenges have you overcome?

I came into this high-flying oil company and within three months of joining the stocks dropped. All of our lenders were calling and doing all sorts of crazy things to our basic lending documents just to survive. We had to fight through a delisting, followed by a proxy battle over a reverse split and then a proxy fight over executive compensation, and then a bond restructuring with competing interests.

That was a huge challenge. But every challenge is an opportunity. By the time we got through all of that, it positioned us in such a great place. That’s the way you have to think about it when those tides start shifting against you. You have to think I’m going to find a way to find an opportunity in this. It’s always there, just sometimes really hard to find.

Wilma Wallace, GC of REI (Recreational Equipment, Inc.)

How did your legal career end up at REI?

I spent many years trying to invest in becoming just a good lawyer, a good technical lawyer. I started at Orrick, then went in-house at Gap, and was at the right place at the right time. For most of my career, I’ve followed my heart as an instinctive North Star. I looked for what was really the right fit for me and not necessarily where others thought I should be.

I spent 20-plus years at Gap, holding both legal and non-legal positions there – something I encourage everyone to do. I took on the projects I thought I could do really well. While people say to never say no, there were times I didn’t feel like I was the right person to take the position. But I didn’t say no often. After 22 years, I left Gap, took some time off, and went through the process trying to decide how I’d spend the next 10 years and was able to find the right position at REI.

How has Morgan Lewis created a relationship with you?

Morgan Lewis partner Joan Haratani invested in me as an individual. She had huge footsteps in the Bay Area legal community and she noticed me. She paid attention to me. We developed a friendship over shared values of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the law and power walks and green juice. We had established a friendship before she ever asked to pitch for work. And when she finally did, her team came dressed in Gap apparel and put together at entire booklet of how Morgan Lewis would be the perfect partner for Gap complete with personalized photos of them at our stores. Needless to say, they got the work.

What’s your leadership style?

Leadership through empowerment. I’m highly collaborative. I was an athlete growing up, so team concepts are intuitive to me, which means bringing teams together is important to me. Any good idea is iterative. Particularly at a senior level, empowering people to do their jobs is a role you are expected to play. You aren’t necessarily a doer, you are getting your work done through other people. Empowering and entrusting them to get the work done and then holding them accountable and providing serious candor when they don’t is a hallmark of being a good GC.

Kathleen Waters, GC of DaVita Inc.

What was the key to your career growth?

My journey to GC is really about relationships. I loved being a partner at Morgan Lewis and had no interest in looking elsewhere. When HealthNet originally called looking for a new GC, I suggested other names. They asked me to come in, and I thought what a great opportunity to get to know more of their senior management. Lo and behold they offered me the job.

I ended up giving it a shot. I was totally in over my head. Five weeks into the job we were approached to be acquired and suddenly this litigator was going to be responsible for an $8 billion transaction. I called Molly Lane at Morgan Lewis and asked for help. While HealthNet had an outside legal team, I needed someone who knew me and would have my back. Sure enough, Molly put together an amazing team. We negotiated diligence and announced the transaction in six weeks. As soon as the deal closed, my previous client DaVita asked me to come work with them.

What’s the difference between an in-house legal team and a client team at a law firm?

Learning to run a team in-house was vastly different from running a team at a law firm. At a law firm, the team is relatively flat. You have partners who can consult a little, but really it’s a core group. In-house, it’s different. In this role, you are supposed to be more of a manager than a doer, which is against my nature.

Literally my first day at DaVita, this complaint arrived from the government in an area I know well. I rolled up my sleeves and dug in and didn’t look up for months. I didn’t realize my team was falling apart. And I didn’t realize it for six months. I wasn’t a very good leader so I called a big team meeting and did a reset. We started focusing on my team to build them up. I think we’re now in a really good spot. We’re getting great feedback in our town halls. Now, my team refers to me as a servant leader—a collaborator but someone who makes decisions when they need to be made.