All in the (In-House) Family

Charlene Oldham Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014, Legal Leave a Comment

Corinne Kevorkian, General Counsel and SVP of Administration at Whitsons Culinary Group, balances arbitrating at the family-run company

FMTBD_Kevorkian_Corinne_review-2As in-house counsel for a closely held company where the family still oversees the day-to-day business, Corinne Kevorkian sometimes finds herself acting as arbitrator between executives who also happen to be related.

“It’s a difficult position to be in, but as attorneys, we are inherently trained to have that role,” said Kevorkian, who also holds the title of Senior Vice President for Administration at Whitsons Culinary Group.

Her training started even earlier as one of seven children growing up in Paris, where her father owned his own law firm. Kevorkian wasn’t shocked, therefore, when she was invited to the first raucous roundtable discussion between the eight family members who manage Whitsons. In fact, she considered it a sign she had gained the executives’ trust.

“They don’t always agree,” she said, “but they always reach a consensus and then go with it as a team.”

Starting with a Clean Slate

As the company’s first in-house legal counsel, Kevorkian established policies and procedures for reviewing legal matters. She also created templates for common contract types and other forms of agreement.

“As is very typical with companies that have never had in-house counsel, you don’t know what you don’t know until there is a problem,” she said.

As one tool to subvert potential problems and anticipate common issues, she created a legal request form that covered all of the most likely scenarios the dining services company might face. The form is designed to be as foolproof as possible for managers, who can simply check the appropriate boxes if they’d like Kevorkian to look over something. The form and other procedures also help determine when the company might need to call in outside counsel.

“You start with a clean slate where there is really nothing, and you have to start building the policies and procedures,” she said. “But you can’t really do it overnight because each company has a culture, especially when you come into a privately held company.”

Getting to Know the Business

For Kevorkian, the process started with getting to know the business. Whitsons provides food services in hospitals, schools and other settings that are often highly regulated and require annual contract negotiations. While Kevorkian previously had served as General Counsel (GC) at F. Schumacher & Co., which provides fabrics, furnishings and other products to interior designers, the intricacies of national, state and local laws governing food production and food services (e.g., the National School Lunch Program) were new to her.

“So it starts with meeting with your businesspeople and asking questions about their business,” she said of her first days with Whitsons in 2010. “Most businesspeople, because they are people, like to talk about what they do and how they do it. They like to talk about their business, and you can’t [get to] know it if you sit in your office and don’t reach out to people and ask questions.”

As in-house counsel, it’s equally important to be open to questions from others, even if they seem to have little to do with legal matters at the outset. Often, Kevorkian finds she can offer advice if, for example, she is familiar with licensing deals while the executive bouncing ideas off her has never done one before.

“I have no problem putting in my business two cents,” she said. “I always think of myself as a businessperson. I’m just the manager of the legal function.”

That businessperson-first, lawyer-second attitude comes, in part, from one of Kevorkian’s mentors at Schumacher. Nick Lomangino, formerly one of the company’s Division Presidents, took her under his wing and coached her in the lingo of the industry. Kevorkian herself eventually moved up to lead a large division of Schumacher as President and General Manager. Her experience on the business side of an industry and her willingness to learn about her new company, where she now also oversees human resources, has enabled her to express her legal opinions openly and gain the confidence of her executive team.

“Businesspeople only push back if you are not being a partner to them, if you are not helping them solve their problem,” Kevorkian said.


Collaboration & Courage

Establishing a strong partnership is especially critical when an in-house attorney has to offer unpopular opinions or deliver unwelcome news. It may be as simple as steering a manager away from a deal that seems like a great idea, but doesn’t fit with other plans that many already be in place, though not yet known companywide.

“I think, as General Counsel, that happens very frequently because we are more aware of what’s going on in other parts of the company than any individual other than the CEO [Chief Executive Officer] or other members of the executive team,” Kevorkian said.

And sometimes it falls to the in-house counsel to be brutally honest with the executives themselves. For an outside law firm, that might mean losing a client. For in-house counsel, it could mean losing a livelihood.

“But, for me, courage goes hand in hand with integrity,” said Kevorkian, who explained this doesn’t just apply to lawyers, but to everyone who wants to be both successful and ethical in business. “You have to be able to stand up to your CEO, to your business colleagues, when they want to do something that’s not necessarily in the best interest of the company, and you have to find a way to say it and still salvage the relationship.”

Kevorkian’s way with words comes from her background in comparative literature, in which she earned a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College before receiving her law degree from Boston College.

“Because so much of what we do as lawyers is analyze texts, and write of course,” she said, “I credit my background in literature, in the written word.”

The dual French and American citizen also speaks three languages (French, English and Spanish) and has lived and worked in a number of international settings, too. While she doesn’t use her language mastery as frequently in her current position as she has in the past, she says her lifelong international exposure has shaped her in profound ways.

“It has made me incredibly adaptable and open to different points of view,” Kevorkian said.

Kevorkian takes it as a high compliment when executives tell her she translates legal language in a way that makes it easy to understand, even for those who did not go to law school.



Charlene Oldham is a freelance writer based in St. Louis, Missouri.

Forefun Q&A

Favorite quote… “When in doubt, do the bold thing and do it with joy in your heart.” This quote came from my father, who attributed it to his longtime friend and client, Armenian-American playwright William Soroyan. Soroyan once told my father, as he was debating leaving Coudert Brothers to start his own law firm in Paris, “When in doubt, do the bold thing.” Later on, my father added, “And do it with joy in your heart.” Since then, I have often relied on this expression when faced with difficult decisions.

Books I recommend… I am currently reading “The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration” by Isabel Wilkerson and “Big Rock Candy Mountain” by Wallace Stegner, both of which are excellent. I’m also a big fan of American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and highly recommend “The Places that Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times.”

Things I carry with me… Two iPhones (one personal, one business) and a little notebook for jotting down thoughts, ideas, books to read, restaurant recommendations, etc.

Apps on my phone I can’t do without… Goodreads, Flixster (with Rotten Tomatoes), Seamless and the Weather and Maps apps.

I can’t start my day unless… I have a large cup of Tazo Zen green tea.

My definition of retirement… Books, travels, yoga and volunteer activities

I unwind from my day by… Reading. I always have a couple of books going at once, usually one fiction, one nonfiction, and one in French. I commute from Manhattan to Long Island, so I make the most of my commute by listening to audio books or catching up on personal phone calls. By the time I get home, I’ve unwound from my day and can enjoy the evening with my family.

One of the best lessons I’ve learned in my career is… That a career, like life in general, is not linear. It is full of twists and turns. What seems like a setback is often an opportunity in disguise. Being open to change, taking chances and following your instinct brings the best results. Oh, and having a sense of humor!

It’s 5:00 on Friday, and my drink of choice is… It might be more like 7 or 8 pm, but it would be a glass of Champagne, or on a cold night a Jameson neat.

Corrine's Key Partners:
Garfunkel Wild, P.C. (Contracts, Regulatory work) | Jackson Lewis LLP (Labor and Employment law)

Charlene Oldham

Contributing Writer at Forefront Magazine
Charlene Oldham is a St. Louis-based teacher and freelancer.

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