As part of Legal Executive Institute’s Launch of Next Gen Leadership, Advancing Lawyers of color, we sat with Ritu Ghai, Senior Legal Counsel for Thomson Reuters, to introduce her as a contributor. In the future, she will be offering up her career brilliance to serve the next generation of attorneys of color seeking to advance to the leadership ranks in the law.
Legal Executive Institute: Tells us about your pivotal career moments and what did you learn?
Ritu Ghai: The pivotal moment in my career was when I switched from being a litigator at a big law firm, Sidley Austin, to being a corporate generalist in an in-house role at Thomson Reuters.
This was a dramatic shift and a learning experience in many ways. The most important thing that I learned was to be open-minded and flexible with my career path. When I practiced at a law firm, I had never imagined that I would depart from litigation and move to a more corporate role. However, when I interviewed with Thomson Reuters, I was so excited about the company, the role, and the manager I would be reporting to, that I was very interested in pursuing the opportunity even though it meant leaving litigation.
I was taking a risk by following a different career path than I had imagined in law school or while practicing at my law firm, but I learned that very few people have straight career paths and taking a detour can lead to the most rewarding possibilities. The opportunity also came at a very busy time in my personal life, and it seemed like a difficult time to make a leap in my career. But I learned that the best opportunities hardly ever present themselves at the “perfect” time and you have to have the courage and confidence to seize them when you can.
Legal Executive Institute: How do you apply the skills that you learned as a litigator into your corporate role?
Ritu Ghai: Although the day-to-day work of a litigator and corporate lawyer is very different, inherently the skills are transferrable. Lawyers are trained to allocate and evaluate risk; and this is a skill that’s integral to being both a litigator and a corporate lawyer.
As a corporate lawyer, I’m the person drafting contracts or advising the business on the representations they make to their stakeholders. As a litigator, I was defending companies in lawsuits premised on contractual disputes or representations made by these companies. This litigation experience has been essential to helping me avoid the pitfalls in my current role that may eventually lead to litigation.
Additionally, writing and public speaking skills (whether internally, to a client, or in a courtroom) are core to being a litigator. Those same skills have been useful for me in my current role when I’m speaking with my business or clients, whether that’s in a negotiation, an email, or a presentation.
Legal Executive Institute: How did you manage your transition into an in-house role? How did you learn the business?
Ritu Ghai: The biggest change I experienced was working directly with business people, rather than practicing lawyers, on a day-to-day basis. My priority became learning the ins and outs of the business to gain the trust of the business. I had somewhat of an advantage that the legal business that I support at Thomson Reuters was a service that I had personally utilized at the law firm, so I already understood the basics of the business model and the service offerings. However, learning the details of the business as well as the roles of the various business people was a challenge.
To get myself up to speed, I did everything from listening in on business phone calls to reviewing people’s roles and the corporate structure on the Thomson Reuters’ intranet, to asking to visit the global locations where various parts of the business operates. As I began showing more interest in the business, the leadership began involving me more in strategic and business discussions.
Legal Executive Institute: You were a first-generation lawyer in your family. How did you find your mentors or develop your network to help you navigate through adjusting to law school? Transitioning into a law firm? Shift to an in-house environment?
Ritu Ghai: I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, and I went to a very diverse university for my undergraduate studies, so diversity was the norm for me growing up.
The first thing that surprised me in law school and in the legal profession was the lack of diversity. The second thing that surprised me was how many people already had connections in the field or advisors in the form of parents or other family members. I’m the first lawyer in my family and an immigrant (my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was a young child). When I was going through law school and the recruiting process, although I had immense support from my family, my family didn’t have a network in the legal field or experience with the legal industry. I had to do my own research and build up my own network over the years. That meant networking through personal relationships by connecting with friends of friends and getting involved in activities and associations at my law school, my law firm, and now at Thomson Reuters.
I especially value those associations focused on driving diversity in the workplace as that is where I found people most willing to mentor and advise me. The perfect example of this is the LEAD program (Lawyers for the Empowerment and Advancement of Diversity), which pairs diverse law firm lawyers and in-house counsel into mentoring relationships. I formed a very close relationship with my mentor from that program, a lawyer at Thomson Reuters, and that mentor helped me make the decision to move from my law firm to Thomson Reuters. But at the same time, I left my law firm on very good terms and have many close friends and mentors still at the firm — relationships which I will always value.
Legal Executive Institute: If you had to give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? And what are the top 3 actions you would recommend for our readers to take?
Ritu Ghai: I would have advised myself that working hard in law school and producing high-quality work product in the legal industry is just table stakes in today’s world. To shine you really should be able to connect with people, both in a one-on-one setting and in front of an audience if possible. Based on this, my action items would be:
1) Take the time to get involved in something. It could be a group within your law school or your organization, or something completely external to the field, but find something that connects you with other motivated people. Attend that two-hour event on a Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. (if your personal schedule permits it, that is!)
2) Utilize networking tools. Whether that’s LinkedIn, your alma mater’s alumni database, your company’s intranet, or your personal friendships. Determining that your friend has a connection on LinkedIn at a company at which you are applying for a job can get you a referral for an interview.
3) Pay it forward. I’m a huge believer in the idea that helping other people, beyond just being a nice thing to do, will probably be helpful to you in the future. Whether you want to call that good karma or sound logic, I’ve personally found that offering to make connections between people has led those same people to come back and proactively offer help to me in my career. Being known as a “connector” is only ever a good thing.