Vol. 39 No. 6
By Leslie A. Gordon
Leslie A. Gordon is a secret lawyer who has been working as a freelance legal affairs journalist for more than 10 years.
They lurk in sometimes surprising places: boardrooms, sports arenas, even artist studios. You can’t spot them with eyes alone—you have to get to know them first. Soon, you’ll discover their expert communication skills, creativity, willingness to work hard, and problem-solving prowess—and that will be the tell. We’re talking, of course, about secret lawyers, those lawyers who have migrated to other professions. Student Lawyer will be highlighting secret lawyers in a new regular feature. For this, the inaugural article, we’ve profiled Elizabeth Scott, vice president at Major League Baseball Productions; woodworker David Burling; and Joanna Geraghty, JetBlue’s chief people officer.
You could say that Elizabeth Scott stumbled into a career home run. After graduating law school in 1993 from the University of Chicago and clerking for a Ninth Circuit judge, Scott launched her legal career at an intellectual property boutique in San Francisco where Major League Baseball (MLB) was a client.
“I had no particular tie to baseball other than having lived in Boston as a kid,” Scott recalls. “I was not a baseball nut, much to the chagrin of the guys at the firm.” But MLB needed her expertise on right-of-publicity cases, including several that went to trial. “It was a lot more interesting than debating drier things like trade dress and logos.” Scott grew to know the client well “since we were prepping witnesses together at 3 a.m.”
A few years later, MLB decided to bring its programming and archiving in-house and the company needed a lawyer to oversee the unit. “They reached out to me,” Scott says. “It was a wonderful opportunity with a client I knew and liked.” Plus, Scott, a classically trained opera conductor, had been missing music while working as a law firm lawyer. “Going in-house allowed me to balance” work and personal interests.
Four years into her job as MLB in-house counsel, Scott increasingly filled business voids. “I was at the table structuring deals. So my role and title changed to reflect what I was actually doing.”
Leaving the legal department behind, Scott was named MLB Productions’ vice president in charge of programming and business affairs, overseeing baseball’s archives and how the company stores and mines data.
According to Scott, the sports world is loaded with former lawyers. “I would absolutely hire someone with a legal background for a non-legal job. There’s a baseline—they’re able to communicate.” Lawyering also honed negotiation skills. When structuring deals, “I know exactly what elements the lawyers will have a problem with because I once was one of them.”
Yet lawyers in business have to be careful not to sound lawyerly, “which can alienate some people. Also, people assume you’ll be cautious. So legal skills are translatable but your use of them has to morph a little bit.” For example, while “winning the point” is important in and out of law practice, “keeping the relationship doesn’t matter as much in litigation as it does in business. You have to be aware of the way you win things.”
While Scott does have “absolutely crazy” periods at MLB, she maintains an optimal work-life balance, enabling her to volunteer as an opera conductor in her spare time. “With a 7:30 opera rehearsal, now I know I will be there. As a litigator, I wouldn’t know with certainty: a client, partner, or judge could screw it up.”
MLB even allowed Scott to aggregate all her vacation last year so she could conduct opera in Italy for a month. “I’m more invigorated for a job when I know I can do other things—like make time for music.”
As an anthropology major at Stanford, David Burling dreamt of becoming a cabinet maker in the Rocky Mountains. “Crafts and back-to-nature were in the air,” recalls Burling, who had been influenced by his interior-designer grandmother, whom he’d grown up accompanying to museums and fabric and cabinet stores.
But Burling was equally influenced by his stepfather and brother, both lawyers. Raised in Washington, D.C., he saw that many politicians and corporate executives were also lawyers. “I knew a law degree didn’t mean you’d end up as a lawyer but gave you other options.”
So he enrolled at Georgetown University Law Center and earned a JD, thinking he would work in international trade law. “I enjoyed the intellectual challenge. It was not a bore like people thought it would be for me.”
After clerking and working at a firm, Burling joined Atari, first in the consumer electronics division and then the international division. A few years later, after brief stints at Del Monte Corporation and another law firm, he joined The Gap’s legal department. During that time, he also started taking evening woodworking classes in an old shop in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Eventually, Burling and his wife sold their house to travel around the country by bus and train. During their adventures, Burling took woodworking classes in Oregon and in Virginia. Impressed with the Santa Fe community college’s new woodworking school, he settled in New Mexico, and opened his own shop in his garage in 1993.
“I made things for my house and when I went to [exhibit at trade] shows, I’d have to take the mattress off our bed,” Burling recalls. He then began producing speculative pieces like coffee tables and side tables. Through word of mouth and displaying at shows, Burling eventually received custom orders, focusing on fine furniture and smaller items like trays. He was able to expand his studio in 2000.
The finances of being a woodworker are “very, very challenging,” he explains. “If it weren’t for my having made a good living as a lawyer and some real estate investments,” woodworking would not be a dependable income. “Even in the best times, I never grossed more than my last bonus as a lawyer.”
As expected, orders dropped during the recession and Burling is considering taking the New Mexico bar to enable him to handle some nonprofit or trusts and estates matters.
Although Burling is now an artist, “lawyerly habits do come in handy. “As a lawyer, I learned about clarifying people’s expectations so I have drawings and specifications that clients must initial.”
Burling’s legal background gave him a firm understanding of how businesspeople think and taught him about client relations and the importance of good communication. These skills enable him to clearly explain the range of possibilities to clients to arrive at the ultimate objective. Having worked in-house, he was also exposed to advertising, marketing, sales, engineering, and human resources. “I have an edge in all of these areas for my own business.”
With a strong perception of “the law firm grind,” Joanna Geraghty planned to steer way clear of big firms when she received her JD in 1997 from Syracuse University College of Law.
She spent her first three years at a boutique firm practicing aviation litigation. “I got fantastic work and great client contact,” she recalls. But eventually she needed to broaden her legal experiences, winding up—of all places—at big firm Holland & Knight in New York. There, she added product liability, complex class actions, appellate, and regulatory work to her aviation litigation background, making partner in the process.
During that time, she kept up relationships with lawyers from her first firm, including an associate there who later became JetBlue’s general counsel. He sent her litigation matters at Holland & Knight and in 2005 he lured her away from private practice altogether, hiring her as JetBlue’s director of litigation and regulatory work. Soon after, she was promoted to associate general counsel, handling everything from litigation to trademark to antitrust matters.
While working in-house, Geraghty asked to help with broad corporate projects, including a relocation project and other strategic initiatives. “I recognized that at times being a lawyer can be a limiting role if you’re not proactive about reaching out,” she explains. “Because I extended myself, I got to act as a business person on those projects and I gained credibility among the client group.” So much so that last year the CEO appointed her JetBlue’s chief people officer.
As the company’s primary human resources officer, Geraghty oversees employment issues relating to JetBlue’s 13,000 crew members in 63 cities, including recruiting, performance evaluation, succession planning, organizational effectiveness, training, compensation and benefits, HR compliance, and the company’s version of labor relations.
According to Geraghty, legal skills translate well into any business climate. “Law school is about building collaborative relationships and a set of analytical skills. It teaches you how to think and review things in an analytical way and to clearly and persuasively communicate.”
Working as a lawyer also prepared her for a decidedly non-lawyer role. “When you’re a lawyer, people are paying you a lot of money to get the right answer. You learn to look at things critically and to bring value to your client. I learned to be a problem-solver, to align people with different perspectives around a common goal. That’s what being an HR professional is all about: finding a place of agreement, reaching a collaborative solution.”
Although Geraghty today works as hard as she did as a lawyer, she does see a difference between private practice and the corporate world.
“As an outside lawyer, you have more opportunity to think and be contemplative and strategize. When you’re in-house, the client is at your door every day. Your day is much more compressed because you must think quickly and provide clear, comprehensive answers,” she explains. “In my current business role, it’s the equivalent: There are pressures to be responsive and supportive. But it’s incredibly rewarding—you see the fruits of your labor every day.”