DRI Members Elect New President: First in-house counsel president focuses on advancing the careers of fellow corporate counsel

Monday, November 30, 2015 - 12:00

“I’m a homegrown DRI girl,” says Laura E. Proctor, the third woman and first in-house lawyer to lead the DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar. What the associate GC of Louisiana-Pacific Corporation means is she is the first person to start with DRI’s Young Lawyers and make it all the way through to the presidency. It began with a free certificate – DRI still gives them out to young lawyers – and the young lawyer seminars she used to attend. “I was in my third year of practice. I didn’t know anything about DRI,” she says. “I showed up, planning on going shopping, and instead ended up getting involved with DRI. I haven’t missed since.” In private practice, Proctor started as an insurance defense lawyer and then moved her practice focus to employment law and products liability. As she mounted the DRI leadership ladder, she led the Young Lawyers and the ADR Committee, launched the Corporate Counsel Committee, and served on DRI’s board of directors. Below she discusses DRI’s focus today, the benefits of membership for in-house counsel, and the organization’s advocacy efforts. This has been edited for length and style. 

MCC: Before becoming the first in-house lawyer to serve as president of DRI, you helped form the Corporate Counsel Committee. Tell us about that group and its role in the broader organization.

Proctor: For years several of DRI’s substantive law committees had corporate counsel subcommittees within their structure, but DRI didn’t have a committee focused solely on in-house counsel and the issues they face in their day-to-day jobs. In-house lawyers deal with very different things than outside lawyers. While DRI played a role in helping educate in-house lawyers on the substantive areas of law and build the relationship between outside and in-house lawyers, my goal, and the goal of our committee, was to also provide the resources that our people needed once they went in-house.

Frequently, the legal department is a very small group, maybe even just one person. When you move from a law firm where you have several people you can turn to for guidance to a small law department where you may be the only one in your subject matter area, it can be difficult. You don’t really have anybody to bounce ideas off of or ask about how to handle new job duties, such as running a budget, handling accruals or the other things that in-house lawyers have to do. The purpose was to provide a support group or network where we could talk among ourselves and ask those questions. Jobs can change very quickly when you’re in-house – companies get purchased or downsize, people retire or leave for other opportunities – so having that network of people who you can reach out to if you lose your job, get promoted to another job or are just looking for different opportunities is very important.

In the past, corporate counsel have viewed DRI as primarily a litigation group. That’s how many of our in-house members got to DRI. But what our members realize is that when you go in-house, to move up in the company may mean moving out of litigation into other areas, such as compliance, or into a general counsel role. The committee is now focusing on how to provide resources to develop the skills in-house counsel need to move forward in their in-house careers. We still have a litigation focus area, but we’re also looking at ways of helping our in-house members grow and advance in their companies in other areas.

MCC: Do you have plans to launch any new events or educational or networking opportunities for DRI members?

Proctor: One program I am very excited about and I believe will be of interest to Metropolitan Corporate Counsel readers is our Business Management Principles for Lawyers program that will be held in April in Nashville, Tennessee, at Belmont University. It is a two-and-a-half day program focused on mini-MBA type courses and is open to in-house only.

MCC: Do you see your presidency of DRI as an indication that the in-house bar is becoming more influential in the organization?

Proctor: It’s a testament to DRI that they recognize the importance of in-house counsel in the organization, and the importance of what we have to say. I’m the first in-house president of DRI, but there have been other in-house leaders in DRI, as well as in some of the other bar associations. It is an indication that, as more in-house legal departments are growing and bringing work inside, there is a role for an in-house lawyer to lead this organization, and to lead the policy and advocacy side as well as the educational side of DRI.

MCC: “Collaboration” is a word that is often used when discussing the relationship between in-house and outside counsel. How can DRI foster further collaboration between the two groups?

Proctor: DRI has a long history of serving as the bridge between outside and inside counsel to facilitate the relationship. As the legal world changes, it’s going to be more and more important for that collaboration to happen. DRI provides a place where both in-house and outside counsel can talk about changes in the practice. DRI is a great place to have that dialogue. We need outside counsel, and they need in-house counsel. It helps when the two are working together to try to make the relationship as strong as possible.

MCC: Can you share with us some of DRI’s priorities and hot topics for the organization and its members going into 2016?

Proctor: The hottest topic right now on everyone’s mind is where the practice of law is going. What will the practice look like in five years, 10 years? Things are changing, and they are changing fast. Such issues as who will try cases in the future when experienced trial lawyers retire but younger lawyers don’t have the experience because the training opportunities weren’t there? Will computers really replace one- to four-year associates as recent headlines have suggested? If more and more corporations are bringing their work in-house, how will that affect private law firms? How will that affect in-house law departments? Are the billable hour and current law firm structure going to survive the changes on the horizon? These are all issues that affect our members. Figuring out the future as the law practice goes through these transitions and how we can assist our members in transitioning into the new normal so they can compete and be successful is going to be a huge focus for DRI.

MCC: DRI is known for its educational offerings and networking opportunities, but less well known is the organization’s advocacy work. Tell us a little about that aspect of DRI’s mission.

Proctor: About four years ago DRI established the Center for Law and Public Policy, or “the Center” as we refer to it. Four years into it, the Center is very strong, and we are making a difference by speaking up on things that matter to the defense bar. We are paying attention to legislation and rules changes that are mistakenly being proposed as noncontroversial, and we are speaking out with the defense bar’s side of the story. In doing so we have been very successful in stopping harmful legislation and rules from being rubber-stamped and passed. Through our amicus program, we are speaking to the courts to make sure the defense position is being heard on important topics, such as class action reform. Our members provided testimony regarding the federal rules changes that was instrumental in getting the new rules adopted. Now we are helping to educate our members on what these new rules mean. And for the fourth year in a row, DRI has put out a national public opinion poll dealing with such issues as class actions, court funding and third-party funding. Our advocacy is an important part of what DRI does, and we are making a difference. What it comes down to is this: We have 22,000 members, and when we put our 22,000 voices together, it becomes a roar – not just a whisper.

MCC: How do in-house counsel benefit from membership in DRI and the leadership opportunities the group provides?

Proctor: This is my favorite question. People always ask me, “Why does your company support your DRI work?” It’s because of the leadership opportunities. In-house counsel want to be part of the business teams in their companies. When you’re leading a committee at DRI, it’s the same skill set as leading a team in your business. You don’t get opportunities very often for that kind of training. Corporations are very high on leadership training and often pay to send their leaders to leadership-training courses. Look at what I’ve been doing as a member of DRI. I’ve led three substantive committees within DRI, managing all of the various activities and programs that each had to offer. I served on the board of directors of a 22,000-person organization for three years, and now I’m serving as an officer. In business terms, I’ve been doing operational management, strategic planning, marketing and brand management and watching over the finances and budget of a large organization. These are all things I would be learning if I went to get an MBA. However, instead of learning them in a classroom, I’m learning by doing it hands-on. When you combine the leadership development opportunities with the excellent legal education I receive from attending DRI’s conferences, my DRI participation helps me be a more valuable member of our business teams and the company. That’s the way they look at it. The biggest benefit of being involved with DRI, at least for me, has been the leadership opportunities that you wouldn’t get if you weren’t a member of an organization like this.

 

Laura E. Proctor, Associate General Counsel (litigation), Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, Nashville, Tennessee. She is the first in-house counsel to serve as President of DRI – The Voice of the Defense Bar. She can be reached at laura.proctor@lpcorp.com.