LexisNexis’ Meredith Sidewater shares what she’s learned during her journey from court room to corporation.
By Nancy Flagg
Meredith Sidewater has an innate ability to recognize and embrace opportunities, especially those that take her beyond her limits. She has found that this ability, combined with patience in working toward an end goal, contributes greatly to growth and professional success.
Stepping Outside One’s Comfort Zone
Inspired by a book she read growing up, Sidewater’s eyes were opened to the possibility of a career as a litigator. She committed to that professional goal and enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.
“I went to college day one knowing that I would be going to law school, and I never wavered,” said Sidewater, who went on to earn a law degree from the University of Georgia.
Sidewater is a self-described former introvert. It might seem, then, that becoming a litigator fell outside of her comfort zone; but she patiently approached the opportunity by laying the necessary groundwork. In her first job as a law clerk, she gained tremendous exposure to the courtroom, including trials, motions practice and researching case law. Most importantly, she observed lawyers in action during court.
“They were not all brilliant,” Sidewater said. “There were plenty of very average lawyers.” That realization made the prospect of being a litigator less daunting for the up-and-comer, and soon after she entered private practice, working primarily as a litigator.
After three years, Sidewater had become disenchanted with a highly stressful and negative litigation environment and decided to explore new opportunities. She became in-house counsel for a startup software firm and then for ChoicePoint Inc.
Sidewater brought skills developed as a litigator to her in-house roles, including a knack of thinking quickly on her feet and the sensitivity needed to listen to individual clients and understand their concerns. Although these were critical skills, she had little in-house counsel experience or familiarity with the heavily regulated information solutions industry. Nevertheless, she seized the opportunity and immersed herself in learning what she needed to know on the job.
Navigating the Winds of Change
When ChoicePoint was acquired by LexisNexis, Sidewater remained as Lead Counsel of the Insurance Services Business Unit. Today she is Senior Vice President and General Counsel for LexisNexis Risk Solutions, a leader in providing essential information that helps customers in all industries and government assess, predict and manage risk. The company has more than 3,000 employees worldwide.
Since she joined ChoicePoint in 1999, the Legal Department has grown from four to 16 lawyers. This increase is due to both an expansion and business growth as well as an active regulatory environment. Sidewater has navigated the rapidly changing conditions by taking advantage of the opportunities these presented in terms of rethinking the legal Department structure.
The most dramatic change has been in the regulatory landscape. “The amount of regulation and attention to it has grown tenfold,” Sidewater noted. For example, in direct response to the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Sidewater created “a formalized structure and dedicated team of people” to ensure compliance with consumer protection laws and prepare for future examinations.
She also used this opportunity to introduce professional project management practices to the team, bringing in non-lawyers for the project management duties, recognizing that most lawyers do not have the training, time or expertise to focus on that very critical function. Sidewater also is solidifying relationships with outside counsel specializing in advocacy related to regulatory agency oversight.
Sidewater conveys that the practice of corporate law is becoming increasingly complex and integrated with all aspects of the business. In-house lawyers no longer just negotiate contracts, but are “in the trenches, involved from conception of a product idea through product launch,” she said. As such, she has added more legal staff to meet the changing needs of the business. As an example, LexisNexis is expanding its international footprint and Sidewater is adding counsel who can steer the company through each country’s unique regulations.
Sidewater’s experience as General Counsel in a global entity has given her valuable perspective on what young lawyers with similar aspirations should be doing to work toward their goals. She advises the following:
Be aware of the politics of a situation. Early in her career, Sidewater tried to “avoid politics,” believing that good performance and good relationships with clients would be enough to help move her career ahead. She found that as she got “higher in the chain,” it became more important to be aware of the priorities and pressures under which others in the organization operated. Even though peers may have respected her and valued her opinion, it seemed they still might not take her advice in light of dealing with other competing priorities. Sidewater learned that she must take time to better understand her peers’ vantage point and personal agenda so as to develop a support system.
Be able to spot issues. Sidewater recommends that lawyers get a wide range of experience and exposure, but adds that they “do not have to be experts in everything, just be able to spot issues.” For example, as LexisNexis expands internationally, it is exporting a U.S.-based business to different countries’ cultures. An attorney managing this initiative must be able to identify potential issues in niche areas such as tax, employment, entity formation and privacy law issues and be able to find experts who can address those issues.
Get a finance-focused education, and learn to speak the language. Sidewater believes that having familiarity with the financial side of businesses is an asset. When meeting with financial managers to discuss a business acquisition, for instance, it helps to have a basic understanding of the financial models being presented. Sidewater recommends that lawyers-to-be get a combined JD/MBA degree or at least take business classes.
Network. “Networking is not necessary if you are happy with a mediocre career,” Sidewater said. If, however, a lawyer wants to make it to the highest levels, he or she must make connections in the community and relevant industry with as many people as possible and build relationships. These are the people who will put forward someone’s name when opportunities arise. Even though Sidewater says it is not in her nature to be a “joiner,” she is active in the Red Cross, the Consumer Data Industry Association, the Future of Privacy Forum and Komen Atlanta.
Above all, Sidewater believes that being alert for and open to opportunities despite a fear of failing is the key to a prosperous career.
Nancy Flagg is a freelance writer based in Sacramento, California.
Meredith's Key Partners:Morrison & Foerster LLP (Litigation) | Troutman Sanders LLP (Patent and Trademark Litigation) | Skadden (Litigation)
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