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How General Should A General Counsel Be?

By Seth Kaufman

Tom Sabatino

Tom Sabatino, the former General Counsel at Hertz, Walgreens, United Airlines, and, at the time of this interview, GC at Tenneco, says being the in-house lawyer isn't quite the job it used to be.

It's harder, broader, and more challenging.

"The GC role writ large has evolved pretty significantly over the last twenty years," said Sabatino, told attendees at Vanguard's General Counsel Dialogue: Leading Through Complexity, The New Roles of the GC Executive. "It's accelerated in the last ten, where the GC is beyond just the legal adviser, but also very much engaged in a whole range of issues outside of law."

Why the change?

"What's happened is, boards and CEOs and other members of management have come to realize that good GCs, thoughtful GCs, people who see around corners, are able to help the company advance its goals. At the same time, we still have to manage all the stuff we need to do as the lawyer for the enterprise —managing risk and making sure that we're doing the right thing for our shareholders, our board and our employees. So we've sort of become a pivotal point. What that means is we take on roles that are different than you might think."

Sabatino recalled the fact he's had Communications divisions in his portfolio at several companies has shocked people. "They said, 'Communications? Aren't you supposed to be fighting the communication guys?' And my response is that no, actually, if I'm a leader, I happen to have a law degree, and I happen to have a set of responsibilities. But I can also have a set of responsibilities that relates to communications. I found it helpful to be able to balance those two things. I think good leaders who are able to balance a number of different constituencies, issues and priorities are going to advance."

To learn more about Sabatino's take on GC leadership, you can listen to a podcast of the dialogue, read a transcript of the exchange, or watch a video.

These thoughts are taken from a dialogue conducted on Jun 23, 2022. Participants may have changed companies and/or titles since then.


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