Promoting the Interests of In-House Counsel: Veta T. Richardson and the Association of Corporate Counsel

Editor's Note: Veta T. Richardson is the President & CEO of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC), a global bar association that promotes the common professional and business interests of in-house counsel who work for corporations, associations and other private-sector organizations through information, education, networking opportunities and advocacy initiatives. She recently discussed her background, ACC's mission, and other topics affecting in-house corporate counsel with BNA.

 

BNA: What was your working experience before becoming President & CEO of the ACC in 2011?

Veta Richardson: I started my career as in-house counsel in the same way that many young adults today begin working--with an internship to gain hands-on experience. I offered to work as an unpaid intern within the law department of Sunoco, Inc., based in Philadelphia, Pa. This opportunity led to a full-time position where I focused on corporate governance, transactions, securities disclosure and finance for more than a decade.

I have always been interested in the broad role of corporate counsel and developing opportunities to further enhance the profession, so I relocated to Washington, D.C. in 1997 to serve as vice president and deputy general counsel at the ACC. Next, between 2001 and 2011, I was executive director at the Minority Corporate Counsel Association (MCCA), advocating for the expanded hiring, retention and promotion of diverse attorneys by legal departments and the law firms they retain. Now, as president and CEO of ACC, my goal is to ensure that we deliver value to our global membership by providing practical resources, substantive educational programs, networking opportunities, timely legal and regulatory updates and engaging in advocacy on the issues important to our members.

BNA: The membership of ACC has grown dramatically since it was founded 30 years ago. Do you anticipate similar growth in the years ahead? To what extent has the organization served the interests of in-house counsel in countries other than the United States?


“My goal is to ensure that we deliver value to our global membership by providing practical resources, substantive educational programs, networking opportunities, timely legal and regulatory updates and engaging in advocacy on the issues important to our members.”
Veta T. Richardson, ACC

Richardson: ACC continues to grow at an impressive pace. We have more than 32,000 members employed by more than 10,000 organizations in more than 75 countries, and are continuously seeking opportunities to establish chapters globally where our members demonstrate a desire to have an organized network of in-house counsel. We recently achieved another global milestone with our first official chapter in Asia, located in Singapore, and it joins an international network of chapters that includes Canada, Argentina, Europe and Israel. ACC's membership base is very diverse--by position, experience level, department size, industry and geography. This year alone, I have traveled to Spain, Israel, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Canada, as well as throughout the United States to meet with various chapters and in-house counsel groups.

We are consistently hearing that our global footprint is increasingly important as ACC continues to expand. In fact, as a result of an online survey to members, 81 percent of respondents indicated that the development of a strong global presence and international network of in-house counsel are vital to ACC's ability to meet their needs. Thus, our advocacy efforts also span the globe, focusing on issues affecting the professional role and status of in-house lawyers, such as right to practice and legal professional privilege. Additionally, our advocacy efforts address substantive legal issues where a unique in-house counsel perspective exists, such as the interplay between internal compliance and reporting systems and government enforcement efforts.

BNA: How many of the Fortune 100/500 corporate legal departments have lawyers who are members of ACC?

Richardson: Many in-house counsel represent multinational organizations spread across the globe and ACC's membership is reflective of this make-up. Currently, our members work in six of the seven continents worldwide, representing corporate counsel at 98 percent of the Fortune 100 and 45 percent of the Global 1000.

Although large law departments are well represented among ACC's membership, we also derive about half of our members from small corporate law departments. As such, we offer programs and resources that span the needs of our diverse members--allowing each group to share their best practices and learn from one another.

BNA: Since becoming president and CEO of ACC, in what significant projects have you been involved?

Richardson: My top priority has been charting a clear strategic plan and vision for how ACC will add value and meet the needs of our members throughout the world. And that has been a huge undertaking and required a lot of time and focus. We have looked at how we do business, the skill sets we needed to add, how to realign how we set goals and measure performance of staff and the organization as a whole. In addition to focusing on that bigger picture view of where we are versus where we want to be organizationally, we have also looked at how to reshape and refine a few key initiatives to be of greater service to a broader cross-section of our worldwide membership.

 

For example, ACC recently examined how to extend the success of the ACC Value Challenge initiative to be more relevant and achievable for our members throughout Europe and we published a guide to the ACC Value Challenge for European in-house counsel. Another example would be how we released our first survey report identifying the most pressing issues facing Canadian chief legal officers (CLOs) and compared/contrasted the findings with what we heard from our CLO respondents in the United States. Our goal is to make sure that our key resources and initiatives have broad appeal and practical value for ACC's diverse membership.

BNA: One of the Operating Values of ACC is to represent in-house attorneys as “full and equal members of the legal profession.” To what extent do you believe that there is a “second-class stigma” associated with working as in-house counsel, instead of with a law firm?

Richardson: When ACC was founded 30 years ago, the perception of in-house lawyers tended to be negative. Many within the legal profession viewed work in corporate legal departments as second to working in a firm, and often perceived you as “second-class citizens.” In 2013, there is a much greater appreciation for the work done in small, medium and large-sized organizations by corporate lawyers and a better understanding of the successes achieved by the in-house bar on behalf of the legal industry. The in-house role is now viewed as a place for an attorney who wants to serve as a dual business executive and legal advisor. While corporate lawyers today must be well versed in all aspects of the law affecting their businesses, they are also called on to provide global business operation solutions to their companies.

BNA: One of the principal activities of the ACC seems to be advocacy on public policy matters affecting its members. What are the main advocacy issues that ACC is currently involved in?


“In 2013, there is a much greater appreciation for the work done in small, medium and large-sized organizations by corporate lawyers and a better understanding of the successes achieved by the in-house bar on behalf of the legal industry.”

Richardson: Our top three advocacy issues in 2013 have been attorney-client privilege, right to practice and gatekeeper liability. Attacks on corporate attorney-client privilege are increasing and impair in-house counsels' duty to advise their clients on all aspects of the law. We monitor where attorney-client privilege is being encroached upon and fight to protect this right. For example, we recently took up this issue in Illinois, urging the state's Supreme Court to clarify a lower court's ruling that improperly waived attorney-client privilege for certain aspects of business transactions.

Right to practice extends to all aspects of multijurisdictional restrictions--regulations that impair corporate counsels' abilities to practice in all locations where their corporations do business--but we have especially focused on pro bono right to practice this year. Working with the Pro Bono Institute and Corporate Pro Bono to assist in-house counsel to establish or improve their legal departments' pro bono efforts. Many states, however, have rules prohibiting in-house counsel from taking on pro bono work. We have filed comment letters in seven states urging bar leaders to amend practice rules to allow in-house counsel the right to provide pro bono legal assistance.

The changing business environment has made gatekeeper liability another prominent advocacy issue. In the wake of numerous corporate scandals, in-house counsel are often caught in the crosshairs, with some suggesting they should be held responsible for the conduct of all employees in their corporations.

BNA: How common, or rare, is it for corporate legal departments to hire people right out of law school?

Richardson: Although I went to in-house right out of law school to work for an energy company, that direct path was rare then and remains still rare today. Most in-house law departments are looking to hire experienced lawyers who have the knowledge, skills and practical training to be able to hit the ground running. Most in-house law departments are not equipped to train young lawyers how to practice law and because most law schools continue to focus on the academic and theoretical rather than the hands-on and practical side, young lawyers often have to look first to other employment settings and gain the practical experience they need to be able to transition to an in-house law department.

BNA: How can a corporation's in-house counsel and outside counsel best work together?

Richardson: There is no one size fits all answer for how in-house counsel and their outside counsel can best work together, however, I believe that both must put the underlying best interest of the client first and work toward bringing value. In my opinion, ACC's efforts to redefine and refocus that value equation have been instructive.

In 2008, ACC launched an initiative called the ACC Value Challenge with the aim to reconnect the value and cost of legal services by prompting corporate law departments to utilize more effective project and process management best practices, leading to better legal outcomes, greater predictability of results, and time or cost of service efficiencies. By 2011 when I joined ACC, our Value Challenge had received lots of interest and media and was ready to move to the next level. We achieved that by shifting the spotlight to celebrate the “best of the best” as models for others to follow by inviting law departments and firms to nominate their organizations and compete to be named ACC Value Champions. The ACC Value Champions selected this year are an international roster of leaders, demonstrating that corporate counsel around the world are moving beyond the billable hour to drive value and efficiency, consistent with the tenets of ACC's Value Challenge movement.