Changing Course Mid-Race – Chris Eck, General Counsel at Finish Line

Nancy Flagg Issue 03 - Jan/Feb 2013, Legal Leave a Comment

Dog lawyer Chris Eck’s journey from private law practice to in-house counsel with the Finish Line Inc.

Early in his private law practice career, Chris Eck stepped into the limelight when he saved two dogs from the death penalty for chasing sheep. Eck challenged Oregon’s mandatory death sentence by arguing for constitutional rights to due process. Eck won the case, and Oregon law was changed. The story “took off like wildfire,” Eck said, reaching national fame with coverage in the Los Angeles Times, the American Bar Association Journal, the BBC and Tom Brokaw’s “NBC Nightly News.” Folks would spot Eck on the street and say, “Hey, there’s the dog lawyer!”

Mastering Private Practice

Eck’s dog case was an entertaining diversion in a 15-year litigation career. His interest in law began when he was a boy. His father, a product liability defense lawyer and partner in a major Pittsburgh law firm, often brought home experts to analyze injury cases. Eck was fascinated by the complex discussions, and he ultimately attended Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After graduation in 1989, he joined a law firm in Oregon and later became a founding member and partner in Eck, Elliott & Andersen.

In private practice and in serving as a trial judge, Eck honed skills in diverse fields, such as Indian law, land-use law, real estate development and business.

“Seek broad experience while in private practice”

From his experiences, he took away three major important lessons. The first, Eck said, is that “you learn more from your losses than from your wins.” For example, in one trial he had a solid case based on the facts but lost because the jury just did not find his client believable. Eck changed his approach to trials and never again underestimated the importance of the client’s impression on the jury.

Lesson No. 2: Be responsive to customer needs, and having “an aggressive sense of urgency” about those needs is vital to success. Eck later brought his customer service ethos to the corporate world, where he and his team provide rapid response to their internal clients. “It’s cliché,” Eck said, “but we advertise that we are not the sales prevention department.”

Eck’s third big takeaway was the value of being curious and developing an extensive range of experience. He discovered that being skilled in a wealth of areas sets the stage for future career growth.

Joining the Corporate World

Eck had been looking for new challenges and found himself drawn to the wide scope offered by large companies. He knew that he might have to start at the bottom, but was buoyed by his goal of being general counsel at a public company within five years.

After only three years, he was appointed General Counsel of the International Division of General Nutrition Centers; in 2010, he became General Counsel at The Finish Line Inc., a leading specialty retailer of premium athletic shoes.

At Finish Line, Eck enjoys the excitement of being part of a nationwide corporation with 11,000 employees, brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce businesses. “Relative to private practice, the work here is extremely varied,” Eck said. “Every area of the business throws something different at you all the time.”

Eck’s exposure to different disciplines throughout his career made it possible for him to work effectively in a public corporation.

In his current role, Eck has a legal team that manages day-to-day operations, leaving him free to work on comprehensive strategic initiatives, such as a recent partnership with Macy’s to put Finish Line-branded shops inside of department stores across the country. Additionally, Eck is involved in positioning Finish Line to become a leading omni-channel retailer via which customers can shop using a variety of mediums and receive fast order fulfillment.

At the heart of cutting-edge changes in retail is being responsive to customers, “whenever and wherever they want,” as Eck put it. He is excited to be part of the trend, and applying his ability to quickly master diverse realms to achieve this customer-centric approach.

Nancy Flagg

Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.

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