The General Counsel Forum Spreads Its Wings

Monday, August 30, 2010 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Lee M. Emery, CEO, The General Counsel Forum (Forum), and John Torres, Executive Vice President, Chief Legal Officer and Secretary, Lennox International and Chairman of the Forum's Texas Statewide Board.

Editor: John, tell our readers about your background.

Torres: Since 2008, I have been executive vice president, chief legal officer and corporate secretary for Lennox International, which is headquartered in the greater Dallas area. Previously, I was general counsel of Freescale Semiconductors in Austin. My relationship with The General Counsel Forum stretches back about ten years, and I have served in a number of different capacities. Currently, I am the chairman of the Texas Statewide organization and serve on the board of the national organization. Previously, I was the chairman of the Austin-San Antonio chapter, so I have a unique perspective, associating first with the members of the Austin-San Antonio chapter and now with the members of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter.

Editor: Lee, why don't you tell our readers about the growth of the organization?

Emery: We just crossed the 500 mark with 505 members. We have chapters in Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin-San Antonia and Houston, and are establishing a chapter in Atlanta.

Editor: What is the Forum's mission, and why is it so attractive to so many general counsel?

Torres : The two strongest benefits are the sharing of best legal practices and the sharing of benchmark information. The members are very open with one another and willing to share their experiences. A third benefit is networking. I've never been in a professional lawyers group that offers networking of the quality we have.

Editor: You have many outside counsel participating as well as some of the legal service providers. Could you describe the membership mix?

Torres: Our outside law firms and other legal service vendors serve as important underwriters to help us meet the financial cost of the organization. In addition to financial support, their members sit on our chapter boards, our statewide board and our national board. The focus of our organization is the development of legal department management expertise.

Editor: Tell us a little bit about the programs that are put on by the chapters. Do they address the ways that inside counsel and outside counsel can work together more effectively?

Emery: Whether it's e-discovery, alternative billing or any of the other issues that are a part of the relationship between a law department and its outside counsel, they are the regular grist for the mill of our programs. In fact, the quality of our chapter programs is an area where we've seen some of the greatest progress since the early days of the organization.

Editor: I noticed that you are giving an annual award for ethics to honor business leaders.

Torres: The Dallas chapter does this, and this year's honoree is Ron Barger, general counsel of the Archon Group. One of the great aspects of the ethics award is that we raise a substantial scholarship fund for a student in need at Southern Methodist University (SMU) Dedman School of Law. It is a very meaningful annual scholarship of $20,000. The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter has been doing this for several years now, and the school works with us to select a top candidate who has financial needs.

Editor: Are there any new developments in terms of the variety of things that you do?

Emery: Yes. In 2006 we started a demonstration project, which we called Forum Women. At that time, we weren't large enough yet to provide any kind of segmentation by subject matter such as the ABA does, but we thought that Forum Women might be an interesting one.

It's taken a while to develop, but now it's a robust group, and they have half a dozen events throughout Texas each year. It's moved from a networking event to an actual program where they'll bring a speaker in from Catalyst or one of the other consulting groups that have folks here in Texas. They'll discuss leadership management and legal best practices. They're powerful women, and they're all in the C Suite. It's turned out to be a terrific program and one that we want to launch in future locations.

We have general counsel roundtable luncheons, one of our backbone events. In some cities at certain times, it will be open only to general counsel. In Dallas, it is open to all members, both general counsel and senior managing counsel. Those are terrific events because counsel get together for lunch, and there are usually a series of questions to prime the pump. You're getting the answers directly from the people who have experienced the same issues that you have.

Editor: What about Forum After Hours?

Torres : Forum After Hours is an informal cocktail gathering at a prominent member's home, and it is alive and well. The emphasis there is on networking. It is also a great chance for prospective members to come into a pressure-free environment and get some candid feedback about what it's like to participate in the organization. There can be anywhere from 15 to 35 folks who attend from 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. People have a glass of wine, and they begin to chat and get to know one another. The bottom line is they are just a lot of fun.

Editor: Your annual conference is coming up shortly, isn't it?

Emery: The conference will take place on Friday, November 19. We kick off with a general counsel-only breakfast and a managing counsel breakfast at 7:30 a.m. At 9:00 a.m., the conference will begin with our keynote speaker, Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust . The theme of The Speed of Trust is that the more members of a team or an organization trust each other, the faster things can happen. We have five other sessions that pick up that thought by exploring how to move faster, better and cheaper in today's economy. It will be unlike any other conference I've attended with theater lighting in a darkened ballroom. We don't take breaks in the morning, and we don't take breaks in the afternoon. We go from speaker to speaker on a big stage with big lights and video and power points. It moves very quickly.

The idea early on was that busy GCs want to spend only a day instead of two or three days. We have a lineup of top people with innovative thoughts. For example, we are having Erik Ramanathan, executive director of the Harvard Law School Program on the Legal Profession and its Center on Lawyers and the Professional Services. Harvard has just completed a four-year study of the relationship between law departments and outside counsel. White papers are being written now, and we'll be one of the first venues for the presentation of some of Harvard's findings. They've been looking at the legal purchasing behavior of about a third of the S&P 500 companies. Erik is going to be talking about some of the results of this study, which will be of great interest not only to Forum members, but also to the Forum underwriters and sponsors attending.

Editor: Aren't the Magna Stella awards given at that time?

Emery: The day before the conference, on the 18th, we have the traditional annual golf tournament, the Women's Caucus, a program involving Forum Women who met during the year, and the Magna Stella Awards dinner. The Women's Caucus is for Forum women members and prospective members, and they will be meeting at the spa at JW Marriott's new hotel. They'll have a speaker during an hour and a half luncheon and then spa treatments in the afternoon.

That evening is the Magna Stella black tie optional event. This event recognizes the accomplishments of general and managing counsel in Texas (whether or not Forum members) from a variety of companies, government agencies and nonprofits achieving the highest standards of leadership and excellence in management skills. The reception begins at 6:00 p.m., and the dinner begins at 7:30 p.m. It is an Academy Awards-style program, at which we honor 22 finalist and announce eight of this year's ten winners. Two winners have already have been announced, and that evening they'll receive their awards, which is a trademarked statuette that is manufactured specifically for us. It's a unique award on a granite base.

Editor: What accounts for the continuing success of the Forum when so many similar organizations have fallen by the wayside? Is this something that might go nationwide?

Torres: The first step in building the organization to what it is today was hiring Lee. The group realized that our schedules were too busy to give us the time necessary to achieve the quality we were seeking. We decided to hire a full-time CEO to run the organization and to drive its continuous improvement. We absolutely found the right person in Lee, and that is why we're enjoying the success that we have today. I do think that distinguishes us from other legal professional organizations. Today, there is a real interest in what we're doing all around the country, particularly in Atlanta as well as in San Jose, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Editor: What is the Forum Institute for Leadership in the Law?

Torres: It is a terrific program - a leadership development program for general counsel and managing counsel presented in partnership with the Cox School of Business at SMU.

Emery: It's a six-day program, including two days of financial information. We work closely with SMU's M.B.A. school and executive education programs in providing the leadership for this. What sets it apart from similar programs in other parts of the country is that general counsel are the controlling board that determines the curriculum. We cover corporate culture, finance, leadership, strategic planning and other topics. We now have completed our fifth year and have about 125 alumni.

One of the difficult things for general counsel is that often corporations look at the general counsel or the chief legal officer as just a lawyer. They only call him or her when they think there is a legal issue. However, in the C Suite, there is a lot of strategic planning going on, and some teams don't bring in the top in-house lawyer until they're about ready to sign a deal, or the general counsel isn't aware of some of the financial warning signals. With this business education, we hope to change that.

Torres: Increasingly, CEOs expect their general counsel to possess business skills, and it's a subject that you're not taught in law school. Getting a formal introduction to some of these subject areas from true experts gives the developing managing counsel and general counsel a leg up.

Please email Lee Emery at lemery@tgcf.org with any questions about this interview.