Donna Edbril, SVP and General Counsel of Caché, shares what she has learned from her career as in-house counsel and building three legal teams from scratch.
“I’m not just here to say ‘no,’” says Donna Edbril, senior vice president and general counsel/corporate secretary at Caché. “A lot of people come with different preconceived notions about lawyers – and many of those notions aren’t positive.”
Founded in 1976 by a Brooklyn, N.Y.-born homemaker/visionary on a fashion quest, Caché describes itself as the first boutique to introduce the styles of Mugler, Armani and Versace to the fashion-conscious American woman. The company, headquartered in New York City, operates stores in 41 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and says it offers a wealth of fashion resources for smart, stylish women.
Caché seems to be the perfect place for Edbril, an in-house legal veteran of such well-known consumer brands as Avon, Godiva Chocolatier and WestPoint Home.
Understanding the business
Her advice to any lawyer considering a transition to in-house legal counsel? Dispel those preconceived notions, learn the business and really listen.
You have to understand the business’ key strategies and objectives, says Edbril. “You have to do a lot of listening. You really have to try to integrate yourself into the business. You have to meet different teams and understand how things work.”
During her career, she’s applied her legal brains to business needs by negotiating a licensing agreement with Rachael Ray for a new line of home furnishings at WestPoint Home, and sponsorship and product placement agreements for Godiva with Bravo TV’s “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” Not to mention facilitating the successful launch of a new product line into distribution channels during her tenure at Godiva – a delicious challenge that many would relish!
“It seems to me that, unless something is illegal, it’s not the role of a lawyer to say ‘no.’ It’s the role of a lawyer to be realistic, to present their best judgment and to present the risks to the business people,” says Edbril.
Getting just the right fit
If you’re a lawyer who embraces a fast-paced work environment, being inside counsel at a company could be a very good fit, says Edbril. That’s largely because working within a company means you have to be comfortable taking risks and moving forward without having access to every single piece of information.
“Attorneys in outside law firms often operate at a different pace than in-house counsel are required to function ,” says Edbril, that the difference in pace is very often dictated by the fast pace in which businesses operate today. She says that in-house lawyers have to keep pace with the needs of the business people they work for.
Finding the right cultural fit is also important, says Edbril, who describes herself as a “people person.” She believes that the best way for in-house lawyers to integrate themselves into a company is to think beyond their role as a lawyer. “You have to prove yourself. You have to give a reason for business people to want to invite you to the party, beyond your specific area of expertise,” she says.
Hiring team players
Every company has its own culture and you have to understand and operate within that culture. Many of the companies where she’s worked would be described as more informal, which isn’t always the right fit for everyone. “An otherwise talented person won’t succeed if they’re not the right fit for the culture,” says Edbril.
Having built a legal team from scratch three times in her career, she has a profound understanding of the need to hire team players. “If it’s all about you and your individual success, it just ends up being a problem. Everyone wants to succeed, but you also have to be driven by wanting the company to succeed and the role you can play in that success,” says Edbril, who has witnessed many insecure people self-destruct because that insecurity runs counter to wanting to drive success for the company.
Building on strengths
Since she’s worked with some very well-known consumer brands, Edbril feels really grounded in areas of law that cross over these industries. Those areas include intellectual property, contracts and employment and benefits issues.
What’s new for her at Caché is everything she’s learning about working at a public company, an experience she describes as both exciting and intellectually challenging. “I’m doing something I’ve never done before. Now everything I do here – even with SEC disclosures – are issues you see in the newspaper all the time. I love learning every day, and I think you’re never too old to learn.”
Her parting advice: “Don’t over-lawyer it. Have a good business mind.” ♦
Chemistry at work
“Chemistry is so important,” says Edbril. “There has to be the right chemistry between the lawyers and the business people. It’s not about how smart someone is. If they don’t have emotional intelligence, they won’t be able to relate to others, and they won’t be successful.”
Without building meaningful relationships with colleagues running the business, in-house attorneys run the risk of not understanding the practicality of the decisions they make. What’s important is to really understand the business, being comfortable with taking some risks – though they should be smart and informed risks, according to Edbril.
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