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Outside View from In-House Counsel

February 06, 2020

The compass and the clock. Damien Atkins, senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary at The Hershey Company, distilled his career advice into the symbolism of those two things: a compass so you can keep your focus on the direction of your dreams, and a clock so you can make the most of the time spent on each step of that journey. In a fireside chat with Morgan Lewis partner Kenneth Polite, Damien discussed his own path, his advice for outside law firms, and his international view of diversity.

Did you always know you wanted to be a general counsel?

Yes. I like imagining creative solutions to problems, so I always envisioned myself being a general counsel of a public company. But my career did not take a linear path. I was particular about wanting to work in tech, so early on in my legal career I joined an internet startup that I thought was going to change the world. It went bankrupt eight months later. But I don’t consider that a failure because of how much I learned. I was the third person left in that company. I had the opportunity to negotiate with vendors and sell the company through bankruptcy, stuff no first- or second-year associate at a law firm would get to do. Of course I didn’t get paid for several months and ate a lot of oatmeal, but I learned a lot.

What advice can you share for others seeking a similar role?

If you want to position yourself for advancement, you have be in the swim lane of the executives. You will never be considered a viable GC candidate if you stay in a narrow lane. You have to take risks. I’ve always known where my compass was going to take me, and I felt comfortable with whatever time it took to get there. I probably went through 30 GC interviews before I got to the job I have today. I started to keep a file of questions that were asked at each interview and then found the gaps I had from a professional experience or skills standpoint. Even as I worked to fill those gaps, I was sharing that information with my network so others could learn from my experiences.

You mention your network; how important are relationships to your job?

I’ve always had a sense that relationships mattered, but it really hit home in August 2011. I was working with AOL at the time and we had a rough quarter where we lowered our target earnings and our stock dropped. We rallied our legal team expecting shareholder activist lawsuits. I didn’t know who to call, but our lawyer did. He had a list of three names for every role on the team that we needed. In addition to being a brilliant lawyer, he came with a personal network, his squad, who could handle anything that would possibly come up. I don’t want to ever be in a situation where I can’t say, “Give me a couple of hours and I’ll put a team together.” Relationships are everything.

People who have extensive personal networks are more important to me than someone who only does excellent work. You want to be that person with exponential value. For those still in law school, now is the time to develop relationships with your peers that will pay off over time. For associates, you can build your network, both in your firms and with your clients, through your work product, availability, and attitude. For midlevels, take every opportunity you can to build relationships with your firm clients now. Angle for that seat next them at dinner, attend pitches or networking events, and ask questions.

How do issues of diversity play into your daily experience?

For me personally I don’t think I’ve ever felt that my race has held me back. If anything, I’ve used it to my benefit. People have often underestimated me, and I use that to my advantage. We approach race with an extraordinarily narrow perspective in the United States. When you work internationally, race is very different. With a global economy, companies that operate outside the United States often focus on me being an American, but don’t care if I’m black.

Hershey is heavily committed to diversity and inclusion. But for our company, it goes beyond just diversity programs or panels. We make it a priority to recruit diverse teams and hire diverse law firms. I’ve had conversations with law firms where I give the direct feedback that they lost our this business because they failed on diversity.

What else do you look for in a law firm partner?

While excellence is paramount, it’s not just about doing the work. A lot of law firms can do the work, but we look at how you can create new value for Hershey. What differentiates you? Do you ask the questions about our real objectives in corporate deals or what we find to be beneficial? Are you going to leverage your external networks for the benefit of your client? Can you bring a unique perspective on the problem of the client that no one else can bring? Especially as new competition arises for law firms from companies like Deloitte and McKinsey that solve business problems, law firms need to prove how they offer differentiated value for clients.

What kind of business problems keep you up at night?

Cybersecurity issues keeps me up at night. Ransomware is now all over the place and all of the things that could wrong if a cyberattack were to happen are always on my mind. We are constantly working with our head of information security on small steps we can take on a regular basis to keep the company safe.

Advances in biotechnology and climate change also are things that particularly affect my business. We have a defined growth strategy, but that is very heavily influenced by new developments in food substitutes and climate change in some of the areas where we get our cocoa beans. I think a lot about the future of farming and innovative ways to overcome these climate challenges.

What do you like most about working at Hershey?

While I’ve always been a fan of the candy, I admit I didn’t know about the heart of the organization until I started working here. One of my goals for my department is to become more integrated with the Milton Hershey School, which has offered a cost-free education to students in need for more than 100 years. Every summer, I get to work with an intern from that school and I learn so much from their stories and the challenges they are facing. It’s both immensely rewarding and tremendously touching.

And there’s no better candy than a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup or PayDay bar straight off the line.