We asked Annamaria Porcaro, associate general counsel, contracts at Ascena Retail Group Inc and winner of the General Commercial Individual of the Year award at the 2017 Global Counsel Awards, her opinion on what it takes to be a successful in-house counsel, the best way to advise senior leadership and what winning the award meant to her.
Describe your current role (responsibilities, size of team, structure).
I am the associate general counsel, contracts. My team includes a senior Attorney and a paralegal. The contracts team is responsible for reviewing and negotiating the majority of contracts entered into by our company (the shared services team and eight brands).
What led you to a career in-house?
After spending a couple of years in a law firm, assisting with corporate matters, I was seconded to one of my law firm’s corporate clients to assist the M&A team with due diligence efforts. I quickly realised that I wanted to continue in-house. Fortunately, after several months, I was asked to join the in-house legal team full time.
In your current role, what is the most challenging situation that you have faced? What are the most significant challenges that in-house lawyers are likely to face over the next few years?
As head of the contracts team, I find that managing clients’ expectations is the most challenging. By the time a contract reaches our team, most clients have already been in discussions with the potential vendor for several months and expect the contract to be signed within days of sending it to the legal department for review. As part of the contract review, my team works to immediately engage with business stakeholders to assist them with understanding the risks inherent in the terms and conditions of the contract, and to reach internal agreement on which provisions we need to negotiate with the vendor.
In my experience, I have recognised that one of the consistent challenges for in-house counsel is to be flexible and innovative to allow the business to make decisions that enable the growth of the business. In-house attorneys are risk averse by training, so we provide legal advice focused on risk mitigation. However, we also have to be mindful that our guidance does not present obstacles to the business’s growth.
Are there particular types of legal issues that you routinely refer to outside counsel? And what kind of matters do you tend to handle in-house?
The contracts team is continuously looking at ways to improve and streamline our process to meet clients’ business needs. The in-house team typically handles the majority of routine business transactions, which represent the overwhelming majority of contracts. Outside counsel is retained to assist with more complex transactions requiring a certain level of subject-matter expertise.
What do you consider to be the essential qualities for a successful in-house lawyer?
I believe it is important to have a desire to learn all aspects of the business, the ability to communicate with all levels of management and the willingness to roll up your sleeves and work hard.
What’s important for in-house counsel to consider when advising senior leadership?
It is very important to be succinct when providing your legal advice. Most senior leaders are running from meeting to meeting, and therefore have very little time to listen to all the details.
If not a lawyer, what would you be?
I am happy with the work I do. However, if I did not have to work, I would be living in and travelling throughout Italy.
What did winning a Global Counsel Award mean to you?
It was a humbling experience to be recognised and honoured not only by my colleagues, but by Lexology, ILO and the Association of Corporate Counsel. Receiving the award was a wonderful acknowledgement of my hard work over the years. It was a nice achievement!
The purpose of the Global Counsel Awards is to identify those in-house counsel, both teams and individuals that excel in their specific roles. The primary aim is to reward lawyers for demonstrable achievements across the full spectrum of in-house responsibility, not simply those who have acted on high-profile transactions. To make a nomination for the 2018 awards please click here.