If Something Interests You, Go Do It

December 21, 2022

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.

What do you look for in outside external counsel?

  1. Creativity: A lot of people have a view of the legal profession as a lot of rules and set laws. I have found during my career that there is a lot of creativity in the law and a lot of gray area, particularly in litigation, international corporate transactions, and securities law. I want outside counsel that brings me ideas and proposed solutions. My plans to accomplish my company’s goals may not be the best way to do it, so I want an outside counsel to tell me how to try something in a different way. I like out-of-the-box thinking, and I don’t want to follow the playbook of someone else. Even if I don’t accept them, I appreciate creative ideas.
  2. Responsiveness: I like people who reach out unprompted—who send me a news article they think I might find interesting or relevant to my business. For example, we have operations near Ukraine, so when the war first broke out, I appreciated lawyers who recognized how that impacted our people and proactively asked me if they could help. I don’t just want responses to specifically paid matters. And I don’t mind receiving emails overnight from lawyers working in other time zones. You work in your time zone, and I’ll work in mine. There is no need to be online when I am if that’s not your working schedule.
  3. Diversity: I prefer to hire a diverse team, and 70% of the lawyers who work for me are women. There isn’t enough diversity in some of the legal teams we work with. We can’t lose sight of the power of diverse thought. It helps us get outside of our implicit bias. When my team comes up with diverse points of view, we can produce the best results for our internal clients.

How can outside counsel help you navigate a global workforce?

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.

How did your career path shape how you provide legal advice?

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.

While women are more represented in law school, it’s not reflected as broadly in the legal world. What advice do you have for women working in a male-dominated environment?

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.”

How can you balance it all?

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.