The Global Concerns of a General Counsel

Chief Legal Officers Provide Insights into Representing Multinational Corporations at a Career Symposium for Students of Columbia Law School

New York, March 17, 2016—A panel of distinguished alumni shared insights into the general counsel role, and revealed just how much their jobs have in common, in a March 4 discussion at Columbia Law School. The speakers—heads of legal departments at global corporations in industries as varied as music and healthcare—emphasized the changing demands on in-house lawyers, as general counsels take a more prominent role in company decisions, helping to plot business strategies and manage crises. 

The March 4 panel discussion, titled “Inside the Mind of a Client,” was part of the Law School’s daylong Private Sector Career Symposium, which is organized by the Office of Career Services and Professional Development to help students stay abreast of developments in private sector law practice and learn about the wide range of opportunities available to young lawyers in a rapidly changing global society. 
Micheal H. Ullmann '83, Steven F. Reich '86, Eve Konstan '92 and Wade Leak '89, discuss their roles as GC of four of the world's largest and most influential corporations. 
Gillian Lester, Columbia Law School Dean and the Lucy G. Moses Professor of Law, moderated the candid conversation, which included:
  • Eve Konstan ’92, executive vice president and general counsel at HBO;
  • Wade Leak ’89, deputy general counsel at Sony Music Entertainment;
  • Steven F. Reich ’86, general counsel for the Americas at Deutsche Bank; and
  • Michael H. Ullmann ’83, vice president and general counsel at Johnson & Johnson. 
“We have four very distinguished alumni of Columbia Law School, who have gone on to become general counsels across a range of industries,” Dean Lester said in her introduction, before leading the discussion into the effects of globalization and the ways the speakers’ experiences as general counsels differed from their previous roles at big law firms.
Global competence, or an intimate knowledge of the international legal environment, was “absolutely critical” to getting hired at Deutsche Bank, said Reich. His prospective employer wanted to know if he understood that “the sensibilities of what it means to be a lawyer in the U.S. are not the sensibilities that exist in other parts of the world.”
Dean Gillian Lester leads the discussion titled "Inside the Mind of a Client."
Ullmann agreed, describing a recent crisis that had to be managed differently in other countries. “Let me take you through 72 hours last week,” he said. A St. Louis jury awarded $72 million to the family of a woman who died of ovarian cancer, which she had claimed was caused by using Johnson & Johnson talcum powder. News of the verdict spread quickly through social media.
While the company planned to appeal the verdict, Ullmann explained how the court of public opinion couldn’t wait for a correction.
Citing past independent studies that showed no correlation between talcum powder and cancer, the company issued statements disagreeing with the verdict and dispatched doctors and medical experts to validate its position in the media.
The response had the desired effect, and within 48 hours the issue started to fade in the Twitterverse. In fact, support for Johnson & Johnson and its baby powder began to trend upward.
Getting out in front of negative media attention is the best way to handle a crisis, said Reich, especially in the financial sector, which has “been in the news lately, in all candor, for all the wrong reasons.”
As general counsel for the Americas at Deutsche Bank, Reich insists on hearing bad news immediately. He said the effective handling of bad news in the financial industry has become much more important after the 2008 financial crisis.
Students had an opportunity to ask questions of the four alumni who spoke about their corporate law careers.

"Since the meltdown, there has been an incredible change in what lawyers do and how we perceive ourselves,” Reich said. “Before the meltdown, we were an engine of transactions. It’s completely different now. Our primary function is to manage risks.”

Leak mentioned a recent protest at Sony, when fans of the recording artist Kesha rallied to support her ongoing contract dispute with the label. “It was my job to monitor the rally in front of the Sony building in New York,” Wade said. While he respected the public’s passion, he took the opportunity to speak to some of them about contract law. 
Like his counterparts, Leak is a chief compliance officer, overseeing and managing regulatory compliance issues within the company. Recently, a Sony executive wanted to travel to Cuba to explore investment opportunities, and Leak had to make sure all continuing sanctions and other travel and business restrictions were followed. “The executive said, ‘It felt like I had the police with me.’”
Sony and HBO are in the intellectual property business, noted Konstan, and though HBO is not highly regulated, the company still faces many proprietary issues.

The discussion resulted in a full house, which spilled over into an adjoining room.

Copyright disputes demand Konstan’s attention. Recently, something as simple as a subsidiary network using a copyrighted photograph without permission landed on her desk.
When an outside party does bring a copyright issue to her company, and it’s clear they are correct in their position, Konstan said, it’s best to resolve the issue quickly. “We say, ‘You are absolutely right—we’ll get this fixed,’” she added. “Settle early, quickly, and quietly, if you can.”
The company’s international reach means she must consider legal nuances in other countries, and she hires lawyers with that in mind. “We are a global company,” Konstan said. “We look for people who can be aware of local differences in the law.”
The general counsel deals with a wide variety of legal work, explained Konstan, which is not the case at a big firm. Leak noted firms often value lawyers for their narrow fields of specialization. “As a GC, it’s the total opposite,” Leak said. The work—and the knowledge required—is much more broad.
The business itself can have rewards, added Ullmann. “I love knowing that everything I do is related to human health care,” he said, advising students to “like what you do.”
“Inside the Mind of a Client” covered one of many topics discussed by alumni and faculty during the symposium. Other panels focused on “Cybersecurity Law in an Insecure World,” “Climate Change and its Effect on U.S. Energy and Environmental Law,” and “Intellectual Property, Digital Media, and the 21st Century.”