NEW YORK — Lucy Fato, Executive Vice President and General Counsel at AIG, shared her best career and personal advice to Women Partner Rising Stars recently a Transforming Women’s Leadership in the Law (TWLL) gathering.
Fato leads a 1,000-plus member legal, regulatory and compliance team, and just recently transitioned her interim “head-of-Human Resources” responsibilities to a new hire. At the event, Fato imparted her wisdom gathered over many difficult business challenges over the 15 years that she has been in-house as deputy GC and now GC at two different Fortune 500 companies, and as a successful lawyer in private practice as a capital markets partner prior to that.
Her insight focused on three key areas: i) connecting with her clients on a human level; ii) gaining strategic experience by serving in corporate secretary duties; and iii) making recommendations on key decisions to GC clients instead of just sharing the pros and cons of options.
Build Human Relationships with Clients
Fato said she never saw herself leaving private practice until the opportunity presented itself in the form of an executive recruiter who had reached out. After discovering that she knew the GC who was at that time looking for a deputy, she agreed to have lunch with him — she never looked back.
One of the backbones to Fato’s success in both practicing privately and in-house has been the transferable skills of building relationships, in addition to being a smart, talented lawyer. Fato explained that she truly enjoys spending time with people and that one of her clients had once told her that her key to success as a law firm partner was the fact that she was a “normal person” who truly stepped into the shoes of her corporate client.
Fato elaborated that in her first role as a GC, one of her first challenges was to forge a pathway out of an adversarial negotiation with regulators, who had the power to significantly negatively impact the company. The first thing she did on her first day at the job was to call every single regulator — including contacts from 40-plus state and federal organizations — to introduce herself with an intention of scheduling time to meet individually with every single one in order to work through the sticky issues.
As a result of her efforts, Fato was able to negotiate positive outcomes for the company.
To Partners Advising GCs: “If I Were in Your Shoes, I Would…. and Here’s Why…”
Another piece of sage advice from Fato to the Women Partners was to make recommendations of key decisions to their GC clients.
Another dinner attendee, Estee Lauder GC Deirdre Stanley, also urged the Women Partners to explain their reasoning so that the GC could gain insights into some of the assumptions of the recommendation so that the GC can provide more nuances and context surrounding the decision-making and also have a healthy debate about the various options.
Both Fato and Stanley indicated that this is so helpful to them in their GC roles, and specifically encouraged the Women Partners to frame the suggestion by saying, “If I [the GC] were in your shoes, I would [insert recommendation] and here is why… [provide reason and context],” to help frame the guidance appropriately.
Fato said she instinctively did this in private practice, and it was very much appreciated by her clients because in doing so, she went beyond simply laying out the pros and cons of each option.
How Corporate Boards of Directors can Influence the Decision to Retain (or Not) Outside Counsel
One of the most critical requirements for creating trusted relationships with a GC is to gain a breadth of strategic experiences — and you cannot get more strategic than sitting in the board room of a Fortune 500 company.
Fato said she originally did not see herself in-house, but what got her to agree to her first in-house role was asking for the corporate secretary duties. Fato had previously advised boards of private companies through IPOs as a private attorney, but she wanted a seat of the table if she was going to make the move in-house.
Fato explained the critical nature of the corporate secretary duties for a company, including:
- Acting as the primary liaison to the board of directors and the chairperson of the board;
- Helping to set up the calendar of meetings and the agendas for each meeting, including the committee meetings (audit, M&A, etc.); and
- Vetting materials ahead of the board meetings to meet the often-changing standards of perfection.
Fato elaborated in detail on the importance of the corporate secretary role, because many times, she said, the board plays a pivotal role in perpetuating or dislodging outside counsel relationships.