One day soon, your company’s general counsel will be as influential as its CFO, predicts Harsco Corp.’s Verona Dorch.
By Stephanie Harris
Verona Dorch, Vice President (VP), General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Harsco Corp., has been practicing law for more than 18 years, the first part of which she spent with top private law firms. Initially thinking she would pursue a career in psychology, Dorch spent a winter during her undergraduate career (her alma mater Dartmouth College operated on a quarterly program) working for a law firm in New York City. Instantly she knew the legal realm was where she wanted to be.
“I really enjoyed the transactional work and what the attorneys were doing,” Dorch said. “I had not been thinking about heading into the legal profession, but after spending that winter at Debevoise & Plimpton, I absolutely loved it and decided I wanted to go to law school and become a corporate lawyer.”
Dorch received her juris doctor degree from Harvard Law School and began her career as a lawyer at WilmerHale LLP in Boston. She went on to work as a Senior Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in their northern Virginia office. When the firm shut down the corporate group during the early 2000s recession, she was retained by Pillsbury and presented the option to work out of their San Francisco office or move to Tokyo as a secondee with a Pillsbury client.
“I took the Japan route, as I felt it offered a new challenge, and worked there for two and a half years as their first non-Japanese in-house attorney, negotiating global deals and traveling extensively for work and leisure,” Dorch recalled. “It opened a different career path for me because I loved the mix of legal and business and the ability to influence decision-making.”
In this new role, she enjoyed working with just one client, as well as the opportunity to not only practice law but also make business decisions and be involved with client negotiations. It was at this time that Dorch began thinking about seeking a permanent in-house role. She returned to the U.S. and worked out of Pillsbury’s San Francisco office for about a year before joining Harsco in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, in 2006 as Assistant General Counsel. In 2011, she became VP and Deputy General Counsel; in 2012, she was promoted to VP and General Counsel.
“I believe it is important to start out with a law firm before going in house. It gives you a level of training you can’t get in house, and it gives you exposure to a number of different areas, whether it’s different types of contracts or client issues,” Dorch said. “And that’s very much what law firms are set up to do—it’s preparing junior lawyers to provide good client services. I don’t think I’d be as good of a lawyer or thinker in house if I hadn’t gone through the law firm experience.”
In House at Harsco
“Once I went in house with Harsco, I worked hard to learn all aspects of the business, visiting global sites and meeting with employees, taking a leadership role on various projects, rotating through each of our business units as a business partner, and partnering with each of our functions to learn the financial and other aspects of the business. I wanted to ensure that as I grew within Harsco I had as good an understanding of the business as I possibly could. I also asked for a transition coach as I made the move to Deputy General Counsel, and again when I moved into the General Counsel role, to better ensure a successful transition into each role.”
As the General Counsel of a multinational corporation such as Harsco (Fortune 1000 public company with more than 400 locations in 50 countries),
Dorch is responsible for the legal department and all of the global lawyers, as well as the company’s global compliance, enterprise risk management and security functions. She also maintains Corporate Secretary responsibilities and is a vital member of the Executive Leadership Team, where she focuses on strategic matters regarding the overall direction of the company.
One of Dorch’s ongoing initiatives has been building a strategic legal function—one that enables the lawyers to become part of the management teams for the company’s four different divisions—and constantly re-examining this structure to ensure its effectiveness.
“I find that the business is very fluid and changing, and if we’re looking to get into emerging markets or otherwise, we really have to shift how we deliver legal services or even where our lawyers are located,” Dorch said. “We also have to exchange fixed costs for variable costs when possible, whether through the use of LPOs [legal process outsourcing] or external law firms, to allow for maximum flexibility and good management of both our internal and external legal costs.”
Until recently, for example, the company had only one lawyer in the Middle East, located in Dubai, and no lawyers in India or the Asia-Pacific region. “Once I became General Counsel, I looked at where the businesses are heading, and a lot of the new work that’s coming our way is very much in the Middle East and Asia-Pacific region,” Dorch said. “What I’m looking to do now is shift and put more senior lawyers in Asia-Pacific and to grow our legal staff presence in the Middle East to stay in step with the business.”
In addition to building and maintaining a strategic legal function for Harsco, Dorch is dedicated to developing her legal staff on an individual basis.
“I truly have a passion for developing people,” she said, “and I try to push each lawyer so they think about where they want to be two to three years from now.”
Dorch works closely with her lawyers, as well as the Human Resources Department and external coaches, to ensure her staff is provided with opportunities to grow professionally and in ways that align with their career goals. She also encourages her staff to think beyond the legal realm and consider other business opportunities within the organization.
Student for Life
“I work with the lawyers to get them thinking beyond the legal function in terms of what they want to do because given the history at Harsco, we’ve had lawyers who have moved into business roles and have headed up divisions (our former General Counsel now heads our second largest business unit) or into other functions, HR or otherwise,” Dorch said. “Some do think they ultimately want to be General Counsel, so it’s my job to make sure I give them the opportunity to develop in that manner.”
Dorch spends time studying different leaders, trying to understand which ones were successful or not and what sorts of impacts they had on others. “I feel that leaders are developed,” she said. “I look at myself and the background I came from: My parents are both working class. We came here as immigrants because my parents understood the greater opportunities available in America, and it was that immigrant push that keep me going even today.”
“I strongly believe that the General Counsel will become as influential as CFOs became post-Sarbanes-Oxley,” Dorch said, “in terms of setting the strategic direction of the company and serving as an overall strategic advisor to the senior management team.”
A self-proclaimed student for life, Dorch firmly believes there is always room for improvement. She strives to speak or meet monthly with other public company General Counsel to share best practices. It is a goal of hers to serve as a thought leader in the continued transformation of the in-house legal function and the strategic influence of General Counsel in that regard. She also speaks publicly on a regular basis and writes articles for various legal publications.
Over the next few years, she will continue her own leadership development from a more strategic approach, including obtaining an Executive MBA and expanding beyond her day-to-day legal job by becoming a candidate for director positions on the public company board of a multinational corporation.
“I feel I have a unique perspective that I can bring to the board of another company given my international background, varied experiences, and legal and business training, and look forward to achieving this goal within the next two to three years,” Dorch said. “When I moved to the General Counsel role, I saw it as a new challenge. I now need to continue to grow my influence and leadership in a way that contributes to the success of Harsco and the functions I am responsible for, and provides me with opportunities to contribute even beyond Harsco.”
Dorch says she is still learning about herself from a leadership standpoint, and is confident that this is the healthiest way for one to examine his or her own career.
“It’s a learning process,” Dorch concluded. “Ten years from now I’ll be a great General Counsel, primarily by taking advantage of the opportunities to expand my knowledge base by learning from the great General Counsels out there who continually share their expertise, and by continuing to seek feedback from my own personal ‘Board of Directors,’ mentors who offer advice and help me look out for blind spots.”
Stephanie Harris is a freelance writer based in Chicago, Illinois.
Verona's Key Partners:Fried Frank | Jones Day | Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP | Arnold & Porter (Outside Counsel) | Huron Consulting (Consultant) | Major Lindsay & Africa (Headhunting Firm)
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