Tips for In-house Success

Cameron Findlay has been Senior Vice President, General Counsel (GC), and Secretary of Archer Daniels Midland Company since 2009. Prior to that, he was GC and Secretary of Medtronic, Inc. He has acted as Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, Deputy Assistant to the President (George H.W. Bush) and Counselor to the White House Chief of Staff, and as a partner at Sidley Austin LLP. His varied and impressive resume has given him special insight into the legal services industry and what it means to be a GC.

The rewards of being an in-house lawyer

 “It’s a satisfying way to practice law,” Findlay says of working as an in-house lawyer. “At a law firm, you’re sometimes perceived as an outsider and a mercenary.” But, he says, when you work in-house, “you can help shape facts that you will have to defend in court. You can head off problems that might end in dispute.” That creates a sense of ownership, leading to job satisfaction.

Findlay says that law school doesn’t necessarily train lawyers for in-house work. “But I’m not sure that it trains [students] to work in a law firm [either], without mentoring and training.” Because law school is “a little theoretical by nature,” he says it’s unrealistic to expect that they would be equipped to prepare students to “immediately work in-house.” And, “the reality is that companies are rarely comfortable hiring students straight out of school. Experience matters.”

But, “law schools tend to focus so much on preparing people for work in firms” that they seldom address an in-house career as a possibility. Findlay mentions that Northwestern University has begun offering a course that demonstrates “what it’s like to be corporate counsel.” He has been a guest speaker in those classes “for a couple of years” and says that it “opens eyes” for students, who previously hadn’t even considered the possibility of working as an in-house attorney.

For lawyers looking to move in-house from a law firm, he suggests “getting to know their client very well.” In-house lawyers are often not hired through recruitment, he says, but rather through “a call from someone at the company who has worked with them for a number of years.”

In-house motivation

 Findlay admits that it can be more difficult for in-house attorneys to map a career path, which may lead to motivation problems. “As a relatively young lawyer [working in-house], you could have someone working in the job above you for 15-20 years,” he says. All of that will begin to change as the Baby Boomers start retiring.

To prepare for that eventuality and motivate lawyers, Archer Daniels Midland’s legal department is planning to initiate a program in which each lawyer is encouraged to create a “personal development plan that identifies what they want to do eventually and what skills and experiences they need in order to do that job.” In the plan, they’ll also determine whose confidence they’ll need to gain. Then, they can work toward “fill[ing] the skills gaps and involv[ing] them in enterprise-wide activities.”

Working toward more efficiency

 “In-house buyers don’t want to support the [traditional law firm] model anymore,” Findlay says. He’s always seeking ways to “identify fixed cost work and lower the cost of it by bringing it in-house.” The only way he sees more work for outside counsel in the future is “if the model of law firms changes a little bit.”

Findlay is continually focusing on ways to do work “better and cheaper and in more efficient ways.” Working as an “active manager of outside law firms” has become more important over the years that he has served as a GC.

However, his experience has been that outside counsel does approach him with alternative fee arrangements or innovative new methods for getting work done. “We have told our firms that we’re not a fan of the billable hour and to come to us with your ideas—and no idea is crazy.” Many of the firms have “seized the opportunity and come to us with clever ideas.” One such idea was a “cost plus small margin deal,” which relied on the firm’s analytics that reveal “exactly what it costs for this partner, or this associate.”

Findlay says that “certainty is valued almost as much as cost control” by his business colleagues. “We want the firms’ incentives to align with ours,” and cost certainty is one way that both can come away happy.

Another change he has experienced over his career as a GC has been “increased government scrutiny and enforcement.” Now, they must think of “how the government might view something, oversee investigations, and deal with conflicts of interest.” That makes the job “more tricky and complex, and, in a sense, more fun.” He says, “It’s nice to be wanted, and never is a lawyer as popular as when a company has a legal problem involving the government.”

The future of law

 “As my generation ages out of law firms, younger people will care less about fancy offices and will be less wedded to the old model,” Findlay says. He predicts that the future will mean “smaller footprints” for law firms. “A lot of law firms don’t look that much different than they did 15 years ago, and they’ve got to change.” Just as buyers no longer want to pay to support the billable hour model, they will no longer want to fund “every associate [having] a window high-rise office in an expensive building. A firm that brings its clients over and shows them an open floor plan will knock some GCs’ socks off,” he says.

Technology will have a profound effect on the future of law, as well. Findlay says that some things happening now in the legal services space, such as outsourcing high-quality work to India, “would have seemed like sci-fi” 20 years ago. He predicts that what technology will continue to do is “beyond what we could even imagine today.”

 

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