hhgregg’s first General Counsel on how her experience with prestigious law firms and starting up her own made her a fit for building up the department at the Indiana-based retailer
Heather Greenawald’s career path might have been somewhat unconventional. But it proved to be the perfect one to prepare the 42-year-old Harvard Law School graduate for her current position as Vice President and General Counsel (GC) for Indiana-based retailer hhgregg.
After working in prestigious law firms in Washington, D.C., and at Sallie Mae Inc., a Fortune 500 company, Greenawald made the unusual decision to strike out on her own. She felt inspired watching the career path of a former mentor from Sallie Mae, who told Greenawald that sometimes taking one step back is necessary to move two steps forward.
“I kept that in mind as I planned out my career,” she said.
Greenawald enjoyed the diversity of clients she had in her own practice, working with companies across various industries and development stages, from emerging growth to Fortune 500. Then little more than a year into it, she received a LinkedIn InMail from an hhgregg representative asking if she’d be interested in an opportunity to become the company’s in-house GC.
Stepping Full Circle
Greenawald started her career in litigation at traditional D.C.-based Arnold & Porter LLP, switching to technology transactional work at the advice of a mentor. She then moved to Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, an entrepreneurial firm representing technology startups, when it opened a branch in D.C.
After she and her husband had their first child, the couple decided to move to Indiana to be closer to family. “At this point, I was intrigued by the possibility of going in house,” Greenawald said. “I found that I really enjoyed the business aspects of my practice, and I wanted to focus in-depth on a particular industry and really learn that business.”
That opportunity materialized when Reston, Virginia-based Sallie Mae advertised for an Assistant GC at its Information Technology headquarters in Indiana.
“Attorneys with my specialized area of expertise are usually drawn to cities with more developed technology industries. So, they were surprised to find that I wanted to move to Indiana,” she joked. “I applied, was flown out here for interviews and hired within about a week.”
Greenawald loved the work, the people and the benefits and resources of a large corporation, but after nearly 10 years, she began to feel pigeonholed. “I knew I had 20-plus more years to work, and I needed to think about the long-term strategic direction that I wanted my career to take. I enjoy the challenge and sense of accomplishment that comes with learning new areas and solving problems, and I knew I needed to expand the breadth of my practice,” she said. “I didn’t have the passion and the excitement of going to work every day that I’d had in the past.”
This led Greenawald to take the leap and open her own practice. The combination of her big-firm and in-house experience appealed to hhgregg, but the fact that she was a self-starter with the initiative to hang her own shingle was key to her getting hired. The company didn’t have a GC, so Greenawald needed to be able to start a practice internally from the ground up.
“The good thing about being in house now is I feel like I have the best of both worlds,” she said. Today she has the strategic business involvement that was lacking in her own practice and the diversity of practice she was seeking when she left Sallie Mae. “So it came around full circle,” Greenawald said. “It just took a few steps along the path to get me to this place.”
Finding Extra Time
Greenawald, who has three children ages 5, 9 and 11, uses her strategic thinking skills to create a workable balance between career and family. Her solution: Hire a nanny/household manager and use an online grocery delivery service. She uses the extra hours gained as such to spend quality time with her husband and kids.
“I think everyone has different philosophies when it comes to work-life balance, but for me, personally, I think working makes me a better parent,” Greenawald said. “I need the challenge, interaction and intellectual stimulation that my work provides, and I think it’s important for my kids to understand that work can be very rewarding.” She also likes being a female role model for her two girls.
There’s no such thing as a perfect balance because career needs and family needs are constantly shifting. Now that her children are all school-aged, though, Greenawald has more time to concentrate on her challenging work at hhgregg.
At hhgregg, Greenawald’s goal is to cultivate an atmosphere of collegiality and teamwork where people aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. “I don’t want to be the type of leader that surrounds myself with ‘yes’ people,” she noted.
Greenawald encourages open discussion and diverse perspectives from different departments within the company, which ultimately leads to better decision-making. She also believes in providing team members with context to get more comprehensive feedback. For example, instead of just telling someone to research a particular law, she explains why she needs the information and her ultimate goal.
“People enjoy their work more when they feel like they are contributing and understand how their efforts impact the big picture,” Greenawald said.
When Greenawald took her job at hhgregg, she was forewarned that working with an in-house lawyer wasn’t part of the culture and that she’d need to “nudge” her way in. Her boss told her she’d know that she was successful when she had so many people banging down her door they’d have to get more legal resources.
“If that’s the definition of success,” Greenawald said, “I’m there!” ♦
Hanging Her Shingle
“I considered this very carefully for awhile because most lawyers, by nature, are risk-averse,” said Greenawald, who opened H. Greenawald Law in 2012. “It was daunting to leave behind the structure and the resources of a large corporation. When you have your own business, you wear a lot of hats. But it’s one of the best decisions I made for my career because I learned so much from it.”
Here are some nuggets of knowledge Greenawald has gained from the experience:
Most difficult aspect?
The isolation. Connecting with people by phone is no substitute for the daily gathering around the water cooler.
Most satisfying aspect?
The breadth of practice keeps it exciting and rewarding.
Advice for someone considering going solo?
Networking is key. It’s all word of mouth. If you can get just a few clients in the door through networking, it will grow exponentially from there.
And supporting extracurricular skills.
Tons of initiative and a willingness to research and learn areas outside your expertise, such as creating a brand and marketing your practice, go into building your own business. Also, tolerance for coping with daily maintenance issues, such as determining accounting practices.
Heather's Key Partners:Ogletree Deakins (Labor & Employment Law) | Bingham McCutchen LLP (Corporate & Securities Law) | Faegre Baker Daniels LLP (Litigation, Intellectual Property, Corporate)
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