Utilizing her unorthodox, yet effective style, Burch Creative Capital General Counsel Laura McCabe Brandt has built professional relationships and fashioned opportunities out of her hard work.
Laura McCabe Brandt has never taken the typical path to achieve a goal. She worked full-time while earning her law degree from Touro Law Center in New York at night.
“Most firms didn’t want to touch me because, as far as they were concerned, I was odd,” Brandt said. Fortunately, she’d set her sights on going in house, and after a few “temp” legal jobs, she landed her first position as Associate General Counsel (GC) for Ranieri & Co. Inc.
Today she’s at the top of her game as GC for New York-based Burch Creative Capital. And unorthodox tactics, the moxie to use them and a lot of hard work are the tools she’s used to create her opportunities for advancement.
Doing It Her Way
At Ranieri & Co., Brandt reviewed many pitches and business presentations and supplied legal advice on term sheets. Always practical, she asked to sit in on the discussions and to see the early drafts—not just the final term sheets. She wanted to understand the points of contention and the evolution of the process of the deal terms in order to provide better legal advice.
“It gives you that color a lot of lawyers just don’t get,” Brandt said. “That helped me develop my way of handling legal matters, which is a little different than most attorneys I speak with.”
When the GC left the company, Brandt turned her familiarity with pitches to her advantage. She created her own pitch, based on dollar-and-cents savings, to show why, despite her being only a second-year lawyer, the company should give her first crack at drafting documentation while using outside counsel for consulting. It was an unorthodox approach, but it was effective. Brandt ran the Legal Department until she left for Apple Core Hotels Inc.
“It was a great learning opportunity to be the person doing all that work,” she said. “There’s a lot to be said about hands-on application and education.”
At Apple Core, Brandt again took the initiative and pointed out that the department was lacking expertise in employment law and labor relations. When the GC told her she could take classes and “figure it out,” she took him up on the offer. She went on to develop guidelines, create a handbook and training materials, and conduct employee training.
Having that expertise contributed to Brandt being offered a job as GC for H&M, which needed an attorney strong in both real estate and labor law.
“It’s an odd combination to have,” she said, “but I’m lucky to have it.”
When she came on board as H&M’s first GC, Brandt had to set the standards, policies and protocols for the Legal Department. She did that by sitting down with all of the department heads, learning what each department did and how it operated. Then she offered insights about her background and how she thought she could help each department.
She lobbied to be part of the business discussions early, proactively setting expectations and making it clear she wasn’t a gatekeeper. Then she worked to earn colleagues’ trust. It proved to be a successful strategy, and she replicated it when she started at Syms Corp. and Burch Creative Capital.
“It really comes down to building relationships,” Brandt said.
Working Lean & Smart
Although she’s worked for companies of all sizes, the legal departments and executive teams Brandt has been a part of have all been small. “I’ve been lucky,” she said, alluding to the great education these settings have provided her.
But being responsible for the whole shebang requires a proactive, take-charge attitude. Fortunately, that’s never been an issue for Brandt. At Burch, she investigated the historical legal records and the legal invoices for the three years prior to her hiring.
“I really look for the ebb and flow of business so I can figure out where I can be most impactful,” she said. “Once I figured that out, I could see time-wise how much I could do myself and how much could be farmed out to young attorneys.”
She’s been at Burch since March 2013. and her team now consists of two full-time young attorneys and one or two externs each semester.
“We learn to work very quickly,” she said.
Brandt’s an old pro at creating ways to streamline tasks and stay organized—none of them particularly high-tech. Her team uses customizable contract templates, sample revisions and standard boilerplates and provisions that can be added into everyday contracts. For real estate deals, Brandt created a letter of intent with three choices under each topic heading.
“As long as they hit one of those three choices when they’re negotiating the deal, that’s great,” she said. “If they go outside the box on one of those three choices, they need to come and talk to me.”
She’s also big on using dry-erase boards—something she first implemented at H&M. While Brandt enjoys having people “pop in” her office to ask questions, she found she lost a lot of time responding to simple status updates. Now all that non-confidential information—when a contract is received, who’s working on it, when a lease is due to be signed, etc.—is color coded by brand and placed on an 8-by-10 dry-erase board in her office. She recently added a smaller (4-by-6) board specifically for key dates.
“It just makes life easier,” Brandt said. “I don’t want to cut anyone off, but with a lean team you need to be efficient.”♦
Doing Well for Others, Too
The charity that’s closest to Brandt’s heartstrings is Tender Loving Care Community Fund Inc., a nonprofit started by people at Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Center at Touro College, Brandt’s alma mater.
The organization sponsors an honor-system food pantry for students who were struggling financially to stay in school and provides emergency financial aid in the form of short-term loans or grants. The funds have been used to replace laptops lost during Hurricane Sandy and to help pay for childcare. As soon as she heard about Tender Loving Care, Brandt volunteered to help.
“I know what it’s like to be that person striving for a better life and finding every obstacle along the way,” said Brandt who grew up in poverty. “I’m more than happy to help somebody who’s trying to help themselves. And I think that’s the beauty of this group.”
She serves as the organization’s Community Director, and in this capacity helps with all fundraising efforts, including an annual spring fashion show and a student closet event where new and gently used clothing donations are sold to students at a minimal price. The proceeds are funneled back into the food pantry program.
Business professionals sometimes get so wound up in the competitive race to get ahead, Brandt acknowledged, that they lose sight of their humanity. “You can have both,” she said. “You can do well for yourself and still be a good person.”
Laura's Key Partners:Cozen O’Connor (Real Estate, Construction and Litigation) | Ellenoff Grossman & Schole LLP (Business & Real Estate litigation) | Reed Smith LLP ( Corporate Law, Tax) | Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP ( Employment Law)
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