Talita Ramos Erickson, General Counsel, Americas of Barilla Group, recently shared her views with Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law The Journal: Transactions & Business (PLJ) about why being a strong business advocate is crucial to being an effective General Counsel, and the importance of earning trust.
PLJ: How is the legal function structured?
Erickson: Our corporate and legal department is structured as a matrix, with regional attorneys, as well as experts in certain areas of law (for example, antitrust, food regulation, and privacy), assigned to our main geographic business units and global functions.
PLJ:What are the top goals or areas of focus for the law department?
Erickson: Barilla has been a family-owned company since 1877, and doing what is right has always been part of our DNA.
As a result of this focus, we do not face many major legal problems, and our in-house attorneys have the privilege of spending a lot of time helping advance the business and preventing future legal issues.
In the past few years, our Global General Counsel began formalizing and structuring an integrated compliance program, which has taken our compliance processes to a new level. In addition, because we are a European company, privacy is also a hot topic.
PLJ: How does the law department avoid being perceived as the “office of no” while still ensuring it helps the client avoid liability?
Erickson: The most important thing is to earn trust from leadership. Trust is established when you exhibit consistent behavior over time.
We want the business team to know we do not overact, that we are reasonable, and that we can help them find alternatives. You do not want to become the “attorney who cried wolf,” always predicting catastrophic consequences. If you cannot find an alternative solution, then you will have to say no, but the business team will trust your advice if you do not do it all of the time.
Additionally, it is important to constantly and intentionally educate the business team on legal matters that are relevant to the company, so that they understand what is at stake when we give them advice.
PLJ: What is your favorite book?
Erickson: My favorite book is Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. I read it as a teenager and it really shaped the way I thought about the world around me.
More recently, I spend time reading books that help me understand different perspectives on topics related to diversity and inclusion, and I thought both The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander, and Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, by J.D. Vance, were eye-opening.
PLJ: What is the best career advice you have ever received and would pass on to a prospective General Counsel?
Erickson: The best advice I have ever received was given to me by the General Counsel of Kraft. He told me that the best thing I could do would be to develop very strong business skills. He explained that you can be a great attorney and draft a beautiful contract, but if the business does not understand it, your efforts are useless.
Deeply understanding the business, including knowing what the business’s priorities are and how your work has an impact, will help you allocate resources properly. If you want to be a General Counsel, learn about business and how to communicate with businesspeople.
Read the full interview in the March issue of Practical Law The Journal: Transactions & Business.
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