In a new blog series, Using Your Platform for Good, Irene Liu, General Counsel of Checkr, expands on crucial topics of corporate culture, such as the importance of ethical leadership for GCs, building a culture of feedback within in-house departments, and the role of critical GC skills in her philosophy of “doing good.”
Irene spoke to us about her career journey, why she’s a public interest attorney at heart, and why she started this blog series.
Taking Risks & Using Your Platform for Good
Irene attributes her career success as a public servant and in-house lawyer to her parents, who instilled in her a strong work ethic and resilience. Her parents came to the U.S. from Korea to seek a better life for the family and observing her parents’ perseverance infused grit within Irene. “I’m not afraid to work hard, jump into new areas and take risks in my career. And I’m always willing to roll up my sleeves if needed to support my team,” she says.
Her willingness to take risks and find opportunities to “do good” with her career has allowed her to follow a non-traditional legal path. After earning her undergraduate degree, Irene went into finance but quickly chose the public service route after graduating from law school. Even though Irene had offers from top-tier law firms paying two to three-times the starting salary of the government, she accepted the opportunity to work at the U.S. Department of Justice and later at the Federal Trade Commission in the Bureau of Consumer Protection. “It was a joy and honor for me to work in the government and serve the public in an enforcement capacity. It was not only an opportunity to give back, but also to truly learn the importance of teamwork, collaboration and camaraderie gained through a shared agency mission,” explains Irene.
Even in the private sector, she continued to find opportunities to serve the public through her in-house roles. At Blackberry, she found a role where she was able to partner with government entities and law enforcement on their investigations by leading BlackBerry’s law enforcement compliance department. Now, at Checkr, she is involved with the company’s fair-chance mission to break down barriers and build opportunities for individuals facing employment struggles as a result of a prior record. Underlying the company’s mission is the belief that everyone, regardless of their background or history, deserves a fair chance to work.
Critical GC Skills to “Do Good” for Your Organization
Irene strongly believes that GCs and lawyers have a unique platform and opportunity to use their degrees to give back, through pro bono volunteer work or even through day-to-day mentoring and leadership at work. Her aspirations to advance to the GC role in part also was motivated by this philosophy and her desire to make a greater impact. By observing previous bosses and based on her own experience, Irene identified that GCs and other senior lawyers can have positive impact not only to their teams but also to the larger organization by providing ethical leadership and mentorship in their daily job through the skills below:
Strategic risk assessment — The main role of a GC is to be the chief risk officer. “The need to understand and assess risk, to evaluate what is the most critical risk, and then to highlight those as needed are important so that you’re not constantly yelling ‘fire’ at every issue,” she explains. Inherently, C-level peers must trust the GC’s judgment — and part of this is knowing when they need to listen in cases where an issue is escalated.
Through legal guidance and risk assessment, the GC can help set a positive “tone at the top” and influence and steer the organization towards business goals and decisions that have integrity while preserving the company’s valuation and its ability to grow and expand. And a GC must not be afraid to yell “fire” if the organization is crossing the lines of the law.
Talent development and team management skills — Irene believes people are the greatest assets on her team. She gives her team opportunities to grow professionally, ensures they feel supported, and illustrates to them that they are part of something larger than themselves. “First and foremost, I treat those on my team with respect, show them my appreciation at every opportunity, and let them know I have their back,” says Irene, adding that in this way she has the opportunity to serve the needs of the company and do good at the same time through mentorship and career development.
Building team culture — Irene also makes building the team culture a top priority. “GCs need to be open and receptive to feedback and spend time every six months at a minimum on team exercises to build a highly effective and collaborative team. If you can build a positive culture where people look forward to coming to work and seeing other team members, your work becomes more meaningful and ideally, you develop true friendships both inside and outside of work,” she says.
Relationship-Building — GCs also need to forge effective relationships with business leaders, Irene explains, adding that she tries to build rapport with others on the executive team by scheduling one-on-one meetings and going out for coffee or drinks in order to get to know them beyond a work capacity and build trust. As one moves to the executive level, GCs need to “become more aware of power dynamics in a room and be able to hold their own in such environments,” she explains. This helps them build influence at the executive table.
Business Acumen — Understanding how your business makes money is also crucial for the GC to be effective and to build and maintain credibility. “When you sit around the executive table, you’re not only bringing legal value but business value — so, understanding business financials is an important ingredient for success,” Irene says, adding that she was able to call on her background in finance to demonstrate this strength and earn her peers’ trust in this area.
Irene’s ability to succeed in leading a corporate law department stems from her understanding that she cannot achieve the organization’s goals without her team and the partnership of other executives. Her example of combining “doing good” and inspiring those around her to operate at their best to deliver optimal results is a sacred leadership lesson for current and aspiring GCs.
Check out Irene’s upcoming blog series, “Using Your Platform for Good”, where she will expand on other ways to “do good” with your GC career, even in your daily activities.