Breen Sullivan, Head of Legal and Business Affairs at Schireson Associates, on thinking business, making great hires, and creating a legal department from scratch…
Tell us a bit about Schireson Associates.
Schireson is a strategy consulting firm that delivers truly custom strategies built on a foundation of advanced data science. We’re a professional services company and a tech company combined: half of our employees are MBA-type consultants and the other half are data scientists. We’re at 50+ employees now, and we’re growing fast.
How big is Schireson’s in-house legal team?
Before I joined, Schireson had longstanding outside counsel relationships, but no in-house lawyers. As growth accelerates, companies reach a tipping point where it becomes clear that hiring an in-house lawyer would save money – even though that full-time hire is probably not going to take-on everything themselves and outside counsel will still be required. When Schireson reached this tipping point, they reached out to me to create an in-house legal function.
Now, I’m focusing on figuring out what a legal department means in the context of our company. As we transition toward being an even larger company, we may need to expand the in-house team – but the pace of legal department expansion will depend on the growth path of the company overall, so for now the team is just me.
How do you incorporate business-side perspective into your legal role?
This question goes to one of the real differences between thinking about things as a law firm lawyer who focuses on the practice of law versus as an in-house lawyer who is primarily part of a business team. It is a fundamentally different way to practice that requires – at least to some extent – a different skill set. Understanding this difference in perspective has been critical to my success in-house.
So how do I incorporate a business perspective into substantive legal work? That’s actually the wrong question! Incorporating business perspective into substantive legal work is what I want from outside counsel. The question for in-house counsel should be: how do you incorporate a legal perspective into substantive business work? The thing that sets me apart- and enables me to add real value is that the lens through which I view a substantive business problem is a legal lens. Everyone at the table is looking at the same business problem – and I bring the legal perspective on the issue.
I believe that what makes someone valuable in-house is when they are truly excited to promote the business interests of the organization by becoming part of the day-to-day connective tissue of the company. By becoming an integral part of the flow of things growing and expanding, you are working to build and create something of value every day.
It’s this perspective that allows you to contextualize everything you're doing in terms of the cost benefit analysis of how it relates to the mission of the business – to always ask ‘how do I facilitate this business growing all around me?
Does this approach factor in as you think about hiring generalists and specialists?
From my perspective, if you have the mindset I just described, then that makes you a generalist. Of course, I can see an instance where somebody with highly specialized skills can add value to a small organization (and certainly on larger legal teams). But, for me, a specialist isn’t the right hire unless they have agility – they would have to be a generalist in spirt (i.e. able to put their specialized skills and knowledge in business perspective constantly).
How did you develop this approach to in-house lawyering?
Primarily, I’ve had the great fortune to work for incredibly intelligent and talented business executives. While truly amazing bosses (like I have had) might be far and few in between, simply working directly for someone who is not a lawyer would probably go a long way to help you develop a similar approach. I try to focus on empathy – to put myself in the shoes of business people and see things from their vantage point – try to understand how they are experiencing business problems.