By showing recognition and being accommodating with his team, Brian Chevlin, General Counsel for Pernod Ricard, builds a dedicated and committed legal team
“Serendipity” means making fortunate discoveries by accident. And that’s how Brian Chevlin – now General Counsel, Senior Vice President at Pernod Ricard USA migrated from commercial litigation and employment matters in a private law practice to in-house work in the packaged-goods industry.
While working at Herrick, Feinstein LLP in 1998, Chevlin received an unexpected invitation. “One of the attorneys at [our client] Unilever went on a three-month maternity leave,” he recalled. “I was familiar with the account, and was asked to cover for her while she was out.”
He never imagined it would turn into a 14-year stint as the company’s Deputy General Counsel! “I believe that people plan and God laughs,” he said. “I’d had no intention of going in-house before. But I found that my skill set matched their requirements, and that I really enjoyed the close interaction with my colleagues. We talked about the business in general as much as we did about legal matters.”
The head of Pernod Ricard USA’s legal department since 2012, Chevlin found few similarities between his new company and Unilever. “The only real one was that they are both Europe-based companies,” he said. “Each of Pernod’s market regions has its own general counsel, and each GC reports to that region’s CEO,” he said. “Unilever’s legal department was much more centralized, with a lot of direct linkage among the various GCs.”
For Chevlin, the sleeker arrangement is a good thing. “There’s a lot of year-to-year innovation in the spirits industry,” he said, “and Pernod is acknowledged as a major innovator in its field. Working at a company like this is exciting – and challenging,” he said.
Many of those challenges stem from navigating a minefield of complex federal alcohol regulations, as well as widely varying restrictions in each of the 50 states. (For example: Lynchburg, Tennessee produces a famous whiskey. But, because Lynchburg’s in a “dry” county, you can’t buy even a taste of the local product. Cross the county line, and you can.)
Shaking up the status quo
Dealing with regulations and a fluid marketplace requires nimble thinking and agile reactions – both of which were somewhat lacking when Chevlin came on board.
“Much of the legal team had been in the same roles for years,” he recalled. “They had little private practice experience, and their in-house careers had been entirely with Pernod.”
But when you’re striving for self-sufficiency, it’s important to have people who can handle all types of issues, and bring different perspectives to the table. Chevlin sought out the smartest people, with the broadest backgrounds. “Usually, I hire people who are smarter than I am,” he said, “and I go after the highest emotional IQ I can find. They’re the ones who work on our most difficult problems.”
At the same time, “They’re constantly talking to each other, combining their minds to find the best solutions,” he said, unlike private practice attorneys who usually work alone.
Recognition for retention
“Most people appreciate regular updates on where they stand. So I require all of my managers to conduct monthly check-ins with their team members – they find out what’s going well, and where they can help with challenges,” he said.
And when someone does a good job, there’s often immediate acknowledgement. “It can be as simple as going to lunch, or just telling them their work is appreciated,” Chevlin said. “In our department, we all work near each other, so it’s easy to provide informal feedback.
“If you make your employees feel fungible, they’ll lose their sense of commitment – and the business will lose in the long run.”
Accommodation helps, too
Chevlin adopted another way of showing appreciation from his former boss (and mentor) at Unilever, Ron Soiefer. “He always accommodated co-workers’ personal issues, such as funerals and health problems,” Chevlin said. “He never took the business must come first position. In fact, Ron would show up at happy family events, and commiserate in tough times. Everyone knew that he saw them as human beings, not just lawyers.”
And Chevlin pays it forward with his current team. “In 99 per cent of the time, there are ways to accommodate the situation – other people can step up and make it work, for example,” he said. But what happens when you honestly can’t do without them? “Then I immediately express my appreciation for their dedication, and make sure to recognize their efforts afterward.”
Looking to the future
For Chevlin, technology is the proverbial double-edged sword. Along one edge, there’s e-discovery software, contact apps, even e-billing programs to reduce drudge work.
But along the other edge, “Plaintiff lawyers now have an easier time finding bases for suing, so companies now face greater reputational and financial risks – just look at Sony. In those situations, the legal department must react quickly – but sometimes with insufficient information,” he said.
To offset that, Chevlin recommends that general counsels have some litigation experience on their resumes. “Litigators must deal with a myriad of issues – general risk management, human resources, investigations, and so on” he said. “They can help companies identify risks in many areas, and will understand the best litigation techniques and options.
“To me, an attorney who is more of a generalist, and knows a little about a lot of things, can be more valuable than an M&A specialist. I think all companies should strive to have a general counsel who has litigation experience.” ♦
The Importance of High Emotional IQ
Without discounting proper schools and good grades, Brian Chevlin uses a different measure of a candidate’s potential for success: emotional IQ. That’s an indication of one’s aptitude for getting along with others in the workplace.
“You need to be aware of your words and body language, and the messages they convey,” Chevlin said. “If you come across as ‘I’m a very smart lawyer, but you’re a not-very-smart marketer,’ you’ll handicap your chances for success as in-house counsel.”
And his belief is supported by numerous academic studies – including one recently published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior. It concluded that a high level of “emotional recognition” is tied to a bigger paycheck, even after considering other factors such as education and work experience.
“Academic test scores or a prestigious law school may get you in the door,” Chevlin added, “but they have little to do with success.”
Brian's Key Partners:Debevoise & Plimpton LLP (IP Law) | Herrick Feinstein (Outside Counsel) | Kenny Nachwalter PA (Anti-Trust Litigation Counsel)
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