General Counsel Q&A: GCs Need to Move Outside Their Comfort Zones, Says Damien Atkins, GC of Panasonic Corp. of North America

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Damien Atkins, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Panasonic Corporation of North America, recently shared his views with Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law The Journal: Transactions & Business (PLJ) about innovation within the legal department and why he would advise prospective General Counsels to stretch outside their comfort zones.

PLJ: How is the legal function of Panasonic structured?

Atkins: We have four primary practice functions:

  •        Litigation, employment, and compensation.
  •        Compliance.
  •        Transactions.
  •        Corporate affairs.

Some of our divisions, subsidiaries, and affiliates also have their own General Counsels.

PLJ: Are there any innovative ideas your legal department has adopted to further its goals?

Atkins: We have implemented a significant number of innovative ideas, particularly in our hiring practices. For example, we have given candidates personality quizzes, such as the DISC assessment. We have also given candidates real-world projects to present or leverage as part of the interview process, as opposed to the more traditional in-house counsel interview process.

PLJ: How does the legal department avoid being perceived as the “office of no” while still ensuring it helps the client avoid liability?

Atkins: We are focused on finding ways to add value, whether it is knowing the business just as well as our clients or seeking relationships with outside counsel to generate revenue opportunities. We also started a project to try to find unclaimed property and we have brought in a lot of money that way. If you make money for your clients, or you bring money into the business, that is a surefire way to not be perceived as the “office of no.”

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Damien Atkins, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Panasonic Corporation of North America

PLJ: How do you align the incentives of external law firms with the objectives of the legal department?

Atkins: Sometimes, we enter a risk fee arrangement, in which a certain portion of the fees are at risk on a particular project. Other times, if a project is particularly successful, a bonus payment is awarded.

PLJ: What three things does a law firm need to do to impress you?

Atkins: We want our law firms to have a depth of expertise in the subject matter involved, a desire to build a long-term relationship with us, and a demonstrated willingness to really learn our business.

PLJ: What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Atkins: The best career advice that I have ever received is that “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” It is a lesson I first heard from college basketball coach John Wooden and that has been repeated many times since. I have also heard, and learned, that a good network beats a great resume every time.

PLJ: What one piece of advice would you give to a prospective General Counsel?

Atkins: To all prospective General Counsels, take on assignments and responsibilities that force you outside of your comfort zone. Very simply, you have to stretch to grow. It is difficult to be the General Counsel because you have to be a utility business player in addition to exercising your legal expertise. You have to want it, and you have to go for it.

Read the full interview in PLJ’s November/December issue.

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