The Legal Executive Institute’s Next Gen Leadership: Advancing Lawyers of Color is excited to continue our content series about the Black GC 2025 Initiative. This series of interviews discusses with general counsel their perspectives of the three categories that the Initiative’s advisory council indicated are critical for success in a GC role: excellent judgment, significant technical legal expertise, and strong executive presence and interpersonal skills. (You can see all our coverage of the Black GC 2025 Initiative here.)
To discuss the importance of excellent judgment, we sat down with Juliette Pryor, senior vice president and general counsel at Cox Enterprises. She is also on the Advisory Council for the Black GC 2025 Initiative.
Legal Executive Institute: Please start by telling us about your career journey and how you came to be involved in the Black GC 2025 initiative.
Juliette Pryor: I began my career in-house as a staff attorney with IBM, and despite a few lateral moves to more traditional lawyer roles, I always found myself back in the in-house environment. What I have always loved about working in-house was the opportunity to be embedded with your client, to be in working groups and teams that are comprised of more than just lawyers, and to be a business person that has the particular background of legal training.
I became involved with the Black GC 2025 initiative through relationships with April Boise and Ernest Tuckett, the co-founders, when I was invited to be a part of the advisory council. Seeing diverse lawyers, in particular black lawyers, have the opportunity to take on this type of business leadership role and ensuring that we are included in the landscape of folks who ascend to these roles are great passions of mine.
Why is having excellent judgment critical to achieving success in a GC role?
The issue of judgment becomes a critical aspect for success for in-house counsel who seek to move forward in their career for a variety of reasons. To be a successful internal advisor, you must be willing to render an opinion and give advice along with living within the organization after those recommendations are adopted.
Excellent judgment requires a set of broader thinking beyond knowing purely the legal analysis. It is knowing when to insert yourself, when to elevate an issue, and how to give advice that is utilized for the best interest of the institution. In addition, it is knowing when to take risk, how much risk to take, and who to bring along in that process.
Judgment is hard to teach. Therefore, it is something that I encourage lawyers who work in-house to exercise from the very beginning of their in-house journey and continue, so they become increasingly comfortable with voicing, relying upon, and leveraging their judgment.
What are the factors in the three GC roles you have held that have influenced your judgment?
There are pivotal moments in an organization that arise as unchartered territory. It could be a crisis response, an unexpected significant change in circumstances within a business or industry, the removal of a senior executive, or taking a company through a bankruptcy.
As a member of the business leadership team, you are there to lend your voice to the strategy and to the planned response based upon your knowledge of the business and its risk appetite, your understanding of the facts and circumstances, and your confidence in relying upon your own judgment and technical skills. Through these experiences, you really sharpen your skills and your ability to help navigate the organization through difficult times.
How did you go about building the trusted advisor relationship with the CEO and the board?
At the core of building a trusted advisor relationship with the CEO is building rapport and secondarily demonstrating your ability to bring value, help the CEO drive strategy, and achieve business success. You want to be in a place where you are one of a few senior people that the leader wants to confer with when difficult decisions have to be made.
CEOs can often be isolated at the top and typically do not want “yes” members of the team around them. In my experience, they value having others around them who are willing to speak up, share a point of view, help pressure test an idea, and bring some challenge to the table. Doing so builds the rapport and the trust with the CEO.
In addition, as a member of the senior team, it is important to demonstrate how I think, what my point of view is (with a willingness to respectfully disagree), and to nudge individuals to think more broadly or differently about an issue. I have started off by stating, ‘I heard what you said in the meeting yesterday and I have a different perspective I’d like you consider.’
Part of the success of a GC is having excellent judgment and getting increasingly more comfortable as a generalist as you move up the ranks of corporate legal departments. Can you talk about how you did that and what strategic moves you made in your decision-making process when you made those moves?
At the start of one’s career, a lawyer is usually trained to be a specialist, and one of the requirements for a GC is to broaden horizons. I encourage people to raise their hand for work and experiences that are one step outside of their traditional area of practice and one step out of their comfort zone.
For many new GCs, they will be entering the role as a new employee at the company. In this case, it is critical to take the time in the early days to be a student of the business, to have lunches, and get out of the company headquarters to go on tours where the product is manufactured or the service is delivered.
The other way to broaden your breadth of experience is working for a company as it goes through some significant milestone — whether it is being acquired, going through a bankruptcy, disposing of a significant asset, or recovering from a significant breach or fraud. These moments are really testing moments for people in the organization. In these instances, you have the opportunity to stretch and grow in new areas, take on extra responsibilities, and help a company navigate a new space.
Another part of excellent judgment is understanding business issues well enough to anticipate situations or to go through different decision-making outcomes. In your first GC role, how did you go about understanding the business? What specific tactics did you use to learn the business?
For many new GCs, they will be entering the role as a new employee at the company. In this case, it is critical to take the time in the early days to be a student of the business, to have lunches, and get out of the company headquarters to go on tours where the product is manufactured or the service is delivered. I have done this by demonstrating a genuine intellectual curiosity about wanting to know how the business works and by talking to people in a variety of professions at many levels inside the company.
You want to ask the questions that may seem stupid or too simple. Start with, ‘How does this make money for us? Have we always done it this way? Why do we do it this way?’ Be willing to go deep to attain a level of understanding around how the business works operationally and what the challenges of the business are.
Finally, having excellent judgment includes the ability to cope with complexity and times of constant change. How do you handle this on a daily basis, especially with the speed of change accelerating?
It starts with placing my energy and attention on the right matters and topics at the right time. To illustrate, it is being able to pivot and say, ‘Okay, this topic is now much more important than this other topic was six months ago. I’ll keep a loose eye on it, but more energy is going here.’ It is a continuous adjustment with the requirement of adapting to juggle all the issues.
In addition, it is of great importance to have healthy relationships with my team, knowing who is on point for a specific topic, and having the trust and rapport with those senior lawyers. To build the trust, I focus on ensuring they are growing as a professional and creating opportunities for visibility with senior business leaders to demonstrate their judgment and leadership.