When Morgan Lewis partners Nancy Yamaguchi and Louise Skinner sat down with Cristin Bracken, senior vice president, chief legal officer, and corporate secretary of Gates Corporation, Cristin shared her insight into what career path to choose to become a general counsel, what she looks for in outside counsel, how to navigate an increasingly global workforce, and things she has learned in a traditionally male-dominated industry. An excerpted version of the conversation is below.
Even more important than bringing your legal expertise with respect to what an issue looks like in different regions, which is obviously necessary and excellent, is informing my team of any social expectations and the cultural norms in the regions where we are doing business. Helping us navigate global locations, fit in, work more effectively, and achieve whatever legal end we are trying to achieve in the culture is a huge asset to us. We need outside counsel to both know the laws and understand the culture in the markets where we operate.
I have a “perfect storm” type of background for becoming an in-house lawyer. I made a lot of changes throughout my career: I worked in-house in energy and oil and gas, in big law and small law, as a litigator, and now I’m in global manufacturing. My big takeaway through all of that experience: if something interests you, go do it. Moving around and getting different experiences is great, even if you come back to what you were originally doing.
For those looking to be a general counsel, having that diverse experience sets you up for your role as a generalist. While we each have an area of expertise, we all do a little bit of everything. Your clients are your coworkers. You still have a tremendously high level of service you have to provide (if you don’t, they will just show up to your desk), but you have the benefit of knowing your company.
That is also applicable to outside counsel; you can be far more effective for your clients if you know a little bit about everything important to your client, and very effective if you know about your client’s business specifically.
I was a litigator and prosecutor in Texas, then went into oil and gas, and now I’m in global manufacturing of auto parts, so I’ve been surrounded by men my entire career. I often arrived in court and was asked if I was the court reporter. But I didn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on that or letting it affect my attitude. If you do really good work, you will be successful. It doesn’t matter what type of environment you are in. It takes time—takes seasoning; you have to put in the hours and produce the excellent work product. Your work product is real and should speak for itself—this is not something you can “Photoshop.”
Set expectations with your boss. On my team, we have lawyers with 12 kids who are 17 years old or younger, just in our Denver office. My message has always been that the time with your family has to be as important as your time at work. That is a standard you have to set for yourself. We all know as young lawyers you work long hours, but as you progress, you have to make the choice for yourself to prioritize your personal life along with work. My lawyers are more effective when they are taking personal time, whether that is for vacations, working remotely, or just taking time to rest. You have to have downtime in order to produce your best quality work and focus when it’s time to do that.