The Best Jobs in America

by Steven Anderson

Corporate Legal Times — Volume 11, Number 114, May 2001

“It always amazes me how little forward thinking goes into some of the career moves people make,” says Catherine R. Nathan, a senior partner at TMP Worldwide Executive Search in New York.  “They take jobs because they’re jobs, not because they’re the right jobs.”

“A perfect example is a law firm partner I interviewed this week – a female with young children.  She would love to be a general counsel, but she really doesn’t want to work all that hard because her children are less than 7 years old.  I said ‘You can have it all, but you can’t have it all at once.  You should be thinking about what job you should take now that will give you the flexibility to be a mom and in 10 years put you in a position to be a general counsel.’  She called me back later and said, ‘You know that took a lot of pressure off me.’”

Most attorneys have their eye on the next rung of the ladder.  But the allure of a swivel chair and a corner office can lead to only fleeting gratification if the job does not match a lawyer’s inherent interests or fully use their abilities.  Money, power and prestige may well be the dancing sugar plums of lawyers’ daydreams, but top recruiters say finding the perfect job has a lot more to do with an honest and subjective accounting of one’s talents and motivations.

"There is no perfect employer.  If companies didn’t have problems, they wouldn’t need lawyers,” says Aaron Williams, president of Aaron Consulting in St. Louis.

“So how do you evaluate what attributes make a great career opportunity?  One is the people you work with.  Two is the nature of the business itself and whether it matches your personality.  Another is the position you have.  Another is the career path you can travel.  These are important things.  What I don’t put on the list is money.  To me, that’s an excuse for leaving, but it’s never the real reason.  It should never be the primary motivator.”

The list doesn’t end there.  For some, a flexible work schedule and full family life is paramount.  Others aspire to a more active role in a company’s business operations and an eventual segue to a non-legal career.  For still others, a chance to make the world a better place or to pursue a childhood dream fuels ambition.  The bottom line is simple: Know thyself.

“You have to go to the top of the mountain at three in the morning to figure out what’s important to you,” says Nathan.  “People need to know what truly interests them.”

Nathan recently checked up on a general counsel at a company with a difficult CEO and a challenging legal department.  He said he was working seven in the morning to nine at night.

“I asked him how he felt about that,” she recalls.  He said, ‘’I’m having such a ball. There’s so much to do and it’s just so exciting that I couldn’t be happier.’  Legal departments that are in a mess are a great challenge for people who like to straighten them out.”

But that kind of experience would be brutal for an attorney who needs include a stable and collegial workplace. 

“Life is too short,” Williams concludes, “to bust your ass for a company you don’t give a shit about.”

This month Corporate Legal Times profiles in-house counsel who have found their dream jobs.  They come from wildly diverging fields.  Each one represents a different aspect of what makes a fulfilling career.  And on the side, we threw in a few counsel who have fabulous perks for good measure.

The Perfect Career Path

Louise Mnich calls herself a hardware junkie.

“If you like big things that fly fast and go boom and knock your socks off, this is the place to work,” she says

Since January, she has been the general counsel of the division everyone associates with Boeing: commercial airplanes.

“I have oversight for the legal-business needs of the group,” she says.  “That includes everything from sales and contracts through relationships with our suppliers, both domestically and internationally.  I also coordinate with our other specialty legal groups within the company on matters of intellectual property, labor and employment and environmental matters.”

It’s a broad and varied job, but what’s most interesting about Mnich is the career path she’s taken, one that’s never been far from things that fly fast and go boom.

“I’ve been on aircraft carriers, I’ve flown in tactical aircraft, I’ve been on a submarine,” she says.  “I’ve tried a case on a carrier in the South China Sea.  I’ve even been to Diego Garcia.”

Mnich began her legal career with seven years in the U.S. Navy.  After active duty as a judge advocate general, she joined the Office of General Counsel, the Navy’s civilian legal arm, where she was involved in contracting and procurement.  That led her to a job at Rockwell International.  When Rockwell’s aerospace and defense business was acquired by Boeing, she came along.

Through more than six years with Boeing, Mnich has continued to use analogous experiences to segue into new legal areas.  Prior to her most recent promotion, she was deputy and chief counsel for Boeing’s space and communications divisions.

“The beauty of Boeing, because of its size, is that it allows the attorneys within the organization to have a wide range of opportunities,” she says.  “It’s not like you have to leave the company to seek experience in another sector.  We have it all here.  We have people doing government things.  We have commercial.  We have people working on the space shuttle, the International Space Station and Delta rocket launches.”

Not to mention a small business in jumbo jets.  But Boeing’s size isn’t the only driver behind its many paths for in-house counsel.  The company primarily promotes from within and encourages attorneys to seek new jobs within its many divisions.

“Leadership views that as positive and encourages it,” says Mnich.  ‘Certainly if you choose to move around and expand your knowledge and business base, there’s a great deal of support, which makes it easier to do.”

That kind of support has allowed Mnich to pursue diverse interests and remain close to all that hardware.

“As a lawyer, you can say, ‘Yes, I like to sit in my office and I work on all these interesting, esoteric and intellectual issues.’  Certainly that is satisfying.  But I can walk over to the factory and watch wings being joined to a massive 747.  You stand there and realize that all the people working in concert are putting this mass of metal and wires together, so this airplane can hold 300 or 400 people and fly the world.  You feel a part of this.  What we do facilitates putting these things together.”

Psychic Rewards and Global Business

“There is, in fact, a psychic benefit to the work I do,” says Terrence B. Adamson of his job at National Geographic.  “But it’s not for pay.  We’re a not-for-profit corporation.  There are no stock options.”

Adamson and his legal department of eight attorneys manage the legal affairs of the publisher of one of the world’s most widely read magazines and most familiar brands.  He doesn’t hesitate when asked the best aspect of his job.

“Truly the mission of the organization,” he says.  “It’s all about education.  It’s all about taking serious substantive subjects and translating them into things that can be entertaining and exciting to ordinary people.  Whether it’s pictures in the magazine or great documentaries, it’s taking this great mission and being a part of a lot of people’s education about the world.”

National Geographic is the 113-year-old official journal of the society.  With 10 million subscribers around the world, the magazine presents greater publishing challenges than even the largest consumer magazines.

“Until about five years ago the magazine was published only in English,” says Adamson.  Like most magazines, we experienced some decline in the English-language circulation.  We lost about 2 million readers.”

But those numbers have been replaced through foreign-language editions.  In recent years Adamson has overseen the organization’s expansion into foreign markets.  Today the magazine has 2 million foreign-language readers, and 40 percent of its circulation is outside of the United States.  By Fall it will have 21 editions, including Portuguese, Turkish and Thai.

“Those create whole new markets for products, books and licensing,” says Adamson.

If that sounds like a distinctly business-side perspective, it’s because only half of Adamson’s time is spent on legal matters.  He has overall responsibility for National Geographic’s international group, which includes the society’s wholly owned for-profit broadcasting subsidiary.

“For 40 years we’ve been doing television programming,” he says.  “About three years ago we set out to gain control of our distribution.  We were providing programming to others to distribute – contracts with PBS, Turner and NBC.  Three years ago, we launched a cable channel internationally in partnership with Fox and NBC.  Now we go to over 100 million homes in 18 countries.”

In fact, Adamson came to National Geographic through its for-profit operation.  When the taxable subsidiary was being formed in the mid 1990’s, the society’s then-president, who Adamson knew from their days together as journalists at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, asked him to join the board.

Three years ago, he left the partnership at Kaye, Scholer, Fierman, Hays & Handler in Washington, D.C. to take the post.

Though the pay may not be as good as in the private sector, Adamson says he has the best of both worlds: the psychic satisfaction of a worthy mission, and the business and legal challenges of a global media operation involved in publishing, broadcasting, ancillary products and brand management.

Actually, one might say he has the best of three worlds.  Through a special arrangement, National Geographic allowed Adamson to keep one client from his private practice, a client he’s represented for more than two decades: President Carter.

A Witness to IP's Evolution

When Steve Fox began his legal career, he had no inkling that his chosen practice area would one day be the corporate world’s hottest property.

“Thirty-five years ago, the patent attorney was largely viewed as a green-eye-shade scrivener,” say s Fox.  “Today, those who write patent applications are writing among the most complex legal documents that exist in the world.  And the value of those documents is tremendous.  All it takes is one claim in one patent to put somebody out of business for a long time.  That’s a powerful tool.”

That kind of power has sent lawyers of all stripes scurrying to get involved.

“When I started, a lot of people were interested in leaving patent law because they thought it would be more fun to do general legal work,” says Fox.  “Today you see the opposite.”

Like most patent lawyers at the time, Fox became interested in the law merely because it seemed like a logical application for his technical training.

He got enough exposure to working in the industry as an engineer while still in school to know it didn’t suit him.  When a friend put him on to considering law school, the idea took root.

“My first job out of law school was at HP, and I’ve been there ever since,” he says.  “That was 33 years ago.”

Over the course of three decades, Fox has seen the area he pursued out of curiosity become the most significant driver of the global economy.  But he’s been no spectator.  As director of intellectual property for a company that has consistently been a stable leader in the volatile tech industry, Fox has pioneered intellectual capital management, the strategic leverage of intellectual assets – people and patents alike – for maximum value.

“It’s how you convert human capital and the tacit knowledge it contains into codified knowledge which represents an intellectual asset,” he says.  “From there you go into protecting intellectual assets.”

Of course, he does all the traditional IP work as well.  He’s responsible for securing patents, ensuring design freedom and managing HP’s large portfolio.

But he says the best part of the job is witnessing the ever-changing law in intellectual property and the concepts that surround it.  Being in the spotlight has its rewards as well.

“You see more and more in the lay press on IP, what it does to help a company or hurt a company,” says Fox.  “ Our business people read these things and they come away with a much better appreciation of what goes on in the IP group of a corporate legal department.”

A Long Road to Public Service

A staggering range of legal problems faces those infected with HIV: hassles with insurance benefits, family law matters, estate planning, discrimination, even immigration hurdles.  Lynn Mickelson deals with them all. 

One client came to her when a landlord denied him an apartment because he wouldn’t disclose why he received Social Security benefits.  An HIV-positive mother needed immigration help because the guardian she wanted to name for her daughter lived in London.  Another client wanted to make sure his domestic partner inherited his property following his death, and that his funeral and burial were conducted pursuant to his wishes and not according to his parents’ religious beliefs.

In each case, Mickelson was able to help.

As legal services manager for the Minnesota Aids Project, Mickelson does a little of everything, from individual client assistance to legislative work.  For her, the variety of legal challenges and the tangible impact on clients’ lives makes the job a perfect fit.

“I knew I had a desire to make a social contribution throughout the time I was in law school,” she says.  “Quite honestly, by the time I was done with school, there weren’t many jobs in the legal services community, and there was a lot of competition for those slots.  This job at MAP was to some degree lucky for me.”

Mickelson’s career has taken a circuitous path, leading far afield from her initial desire to do public service.  After the small firm she worked for out of law school went out of business, she says she was burned out on the law.

She spent six years at West Publishing in a non-legal job, then tried her hand at a solo practice.  But eventually the right job came along.

“When I saw the job opening here, it seemed like a good fit,” she says.  “When I was in private practice I did a lot of estate-planning work, which was a primary need of the HIV community at that time.”

Mickelson has been with Minnesota AIDS Project for six years.  One of two full-time attorneys on staff, she says the client work is the most rewarding aspect of her job.  But she also helps shape the organization’s public policy agenda by researching HIV-related legal issues and educating the legal team.

“From the time I started here we’ve seen a significant increase in discrimination and confidentiality issues,” she says.  “The Centers for Disease Control put out a survey last year on HIV stigma that showed stigma is at the same level it was in the early 1990’s.  A great many people still believe that you can acquire HIV from drinking glasses.  These kinds of things come up in the workplace.  Another national study found that employees don’t want people with HIV to be discriminated against, but they don’t want to work with them.”

“Working to strengthen medical privacy and confidentiality, and to increase funding for education and public awareness has become our legislative agenda for the next couple of years.  It’s been very exciting to be involved in that.”

Business Integration at Reuters

In the early 1990’s Reuters America was one of the first companies to pay in-house counsel the going rate for top law-firm attorneys.  The result was a group of attorneys that has more in common with a high-end boutique than an average legal department.

“I’ve often described it as what you would have in a large law firm as your lunch table,” says John Reid-Dodick.  “You might have 300 or 400 lawyers at a firm, but these are the people who you grab lunch with.”

It’s also a law department with strong ties to the business – they get involved in deals and strategies early, and stay involved.

For many Reuters attorneys, the legal department has been a springboard to non-legal roles in the company, as was the case for Reuters’ newly appointed CEO.

“The career paths are very interesting here,” says Reid-Dodick.  “The best example is Tom Glocer himself, who left Davis Polk for Reuters in 1993 and became general counsel in 1995.  In late 1996 he became chief executive of Reuters Latin America. From there he held an interim job before becoming president of Reuters in the Americas.  Last February he became an executive director.  He was just announced before the holidays as our next global chief executive.”

Reid-Dodick joined Reuters as director of litigation in 1995 and has been general counsel since January 1998.

One of four regional GC’s around the world, he reports to a global general counsel.  He also has responsibilities beyond the legal function.  The America division’s legal and compliance departments report to him, as well as government affairs, media, investor relations and human resources.

“This is one of the best general counsel jobs,” he says.

"Part of it is the interest of what we do every day.  Reuters is best known as a news agency.  That’s a very important part of what we do, but it accounts for about 5 percent of our revenues.  The company is involved in technology, the financial markets, software development.  We had a number of alliances evolve over the last few years, and, as a result, the work we get into is really quite fascinating.”

In 1994 Reuters began packaging news for distribution over the Internet.  An early investor in Yahoo and other web portals, the company now has news and information on over 1,400 web sites, and more recently developed products to help customers distribute financial information through their extranets.

The legal work involved may well be fascinating, but Reid-Dodick is not glued to his chair.  He recently began a nine-month leave from his legal duties to work on a special global development project for the company.

"You could characterize it as working with a group of other executives on a project to better organize our business to focus more effectively on our customers," he says.  "In that role, I'm working on a range of human resource matters."

One can't help but wonder if he's soon to follow his predecessor's footsteps to the business side, to which he carefully responds: "If the business likes what I do and how I perform on this project, and decides there is a role for me outside the legal department, I would welcome that."

Sun, Snow and Cheap Surgery at Vail

It took quite a while to get Eric Stein on the phone.  The deadline for this story coincided with two feet of fresh snow in Vail's back bowls.  Nothing could keep this in-house counsel indoors on the best powder day in eight years.

"I sort of have mixed feelings about saying how great it is," says Stein.  "I'm concerned that somebody else will try to come and ease me out of here. "

The legal work at Vail is often routine, says Stein.

A lot of contracts, employment matters and day-to-day general legal advice.  But the lifestyle is anything but ordinary.  As of March 20, Stein had already skied 57 days this season.

"There's certainly a culture of getting out and getting on the hill as much as possible as long as it doesn't conflict with your work," he says.  "We also get some free golf, one free ski lesson per month and really great health insurance benefits.  I tore my anterior cruciate ligament last year.  I had some of the best orthopedic surgeons in the world and it cost me almost nothing."

Stein joined Vail's six-lawyer legal department a year and a half ago.  Previously he was general counsel to the Ute Mountain Indian Tribe in southwestern Colorado.

But he had also been a part time ski instructor at Vail for 10 years, a connection that ultimately paid off.

"I made pains, even when I lived 300 miles away, to maintain status here because it's such a great place to teach skiing," he says.

"They were looking for a generalist.  I was a pretty good fit.  We deal with federal public lands, contracts, environmental law and a little bit of employment law.  I had all that experience working with the Indian tribe as in-house counsel."

It's not all fun on the slopes.  On days when Stein does hit the mountain, he usually finds himself working late into the evening.  But Vail makes it easy for employees to squeeze in a little recreation.  Though the legal department is located at offices in Avon, eight miles west of Vail, the company runs a ski bus to shuttle employees back and forth for mid-day ski breaks.

"The bottom line is, it's pretty much all it's cracked up to be," he says.  "The best thing about it is working with the people here.  Because of the lifestyle, because of the culture here, everybody seems to be in a pretty good mood all the time.  One of the nicest bunch of people I've ever worked with.  The mountains lend themselves to making people happy."