Nancy Laben always knew that the common route many newly minted law school graduates follow — obtaining a clerkship or landing a position at a Big Law firm — just wasn’t for her.
“I took stock of my skillset, and what I loved and was passionate about was the business side of law,” said Laben, who is General Counsel of the Northern Virginia-based management consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.
During her third year at Columbia Law School in 1985, she landed a position in the IBM legal department’s two-year training rotational program. After four years with IBM, the company prepared to transfer Laben to their Burlington, Vermont offices. However, wanting international experience, Laben departed for Chicago-based consulting firm Andersen Consulting (later renamed Accenture) in 1989.
“At the time, [IBM] said they’d never transfer a woman overseas,” recalled Laben.
When shown Laben’s quote, IBM did not immediately have a comment.
In 2010, she became General Counsel of the multinational engineering consultancy AECOM, but in 2013, Laben joined Booz Allen Hamilton as General Counsel and member of the leadership team. Since then, she has also been named Chief Legal Officer, Corporate Secretary, and a senior partner of the firm.
Since joining she has helped form an external relations branch in the consultancy, which deals with the media and integrates with government relations and other branches. “Media relations has really changed, as I’m learning — and this is an opportunity for me to learn on the job as well — from what it was 10 or 15 years ago,” said Laben. “You have all kinds of different media outlets, different ways they cover the Fortune 500 and/or economics in general.”
Big Law Business spoke with Laben about the changing nature of the general counsel role in the consulting industry, the benefits of going in-house to start a career, and the ongoing overhaul of Booz Allen Hamilton’s external relations team that she’s currently overseeing. The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Big Law Business: I know you joined Booz Allen Hamilton after the Edward Snowden saga emerged, but how have the actions of people like Snowden and like Harold Martin affected the work you do in the Booz Allen legal department? Do you work to put in place policies that will prevent employees from possibly stealing government files?
Laben: I think our Chairman and former CEO Ralph Shrader put it best when he said at the time that Snowden doesn’t “define us” at Booz Allen, and neither does Harold Martin, whose alleged offenses took place at multiple employers, starting in 1996. We are a 103-year-old company that has thrived this long because we maintain the highest ethical standards and reinforce them throughout the business from the moment someone is hired. The national security community is an interconnected ecosystem involving many highly skilled participants, and we are doing our part – along with others in industry and government – to look for ways to improve the ability to detect someone who may be on a personal mission to break the law. My team certainly plays a role in that effort.
Big Law Business: I’ve read that you were one of just a few in your graduating class in law school that always knew you wanted to work in-house — why was that the case?
Laben: I don’t believe there were very many from the class who did not either go into big law or to a clerkship. I took stock of my skillset, and what I loved and was passionate about was the business side of law. I felt that I could really start my journey early and get into the business side of law if I went in-house. Then and now, it has afforded me the opportunity to understand business practices and help to develop those to ensure that the company is meeting its mission.
Big Law Business: How have you seen the GC and deputy GC role evolve?
Laben: I think when I went into industry as a lawyer, there was not a large number of in-house counsel. Now there are close to 150,000 in-house counsel. The reason is we get that much closer to the business than anyone else — any consultants, any outside counsel you can hire. Our job is to understand the business as well as the business understands the business. That is expectation. My best performers are businesspeople first who bring a legal background and a legal understanding. That expectation has evolved. Years ago, I think it would have been harder to sit on leadership team and comment on strategy or finances and not comment on things that are strictly legal, but now it’s expected. I think the consulting industry, to be quite honest, has been at forefront of that just because of the breadth of things that consultants look to and do. At Booz Allen, we’re challenged to have a problem-solving mentality. You want to get as many diverse viewpoints at the table as you can. Diversity comes in backgrounds, whether you have a finance or a legal background. It comes in terms of gender, in terms of geography, national origin — whatever it is, having that diversity at the table will give you that much more of an opportunity to come to a that much more inventive solution for our clients.
Big Law Business: You mentioned before that you’re currently in the process of restructuring Booz Allen Hamilton’s external relations operation. Could you speak more about what you’re aiming for that to look like?
Laben: When I came on board here, we did not have an external relations or government relations function, per se. There had been a few over the years who had thought about it, but it was hard for me to believe that a 100-year-old company did not have that function. As is always the case when you raise a question, a smart leader turns to you and says, good question, now fix it. We’ve looked at what is the role of a government relations function, and thinking about the fact that we do a lot of work for the government, but they don’t know us, they don’t know who we are, they don’t know where our people vote. So for me, that’s been figuring out, who do we need to bring on board so that we’re better known? It’s an education process for the people who oversee our practice most broadly. That’s on the government relations side, but we also tie it to media relations. Media relations has really changed, as I’m learning — and this is an opportunity for me to learn on the job as well — from what it was 10 or 15 years ago. You have all kinds of different media outlets, different ways they cover the Fortune 500 and/or economics in general. We’re working with the team we had, which was already on the cutting edge, but we’re redefining it as a strategy. We’re looking to make sure it’s fully integrated with our government relations, investor relations, community partnerships, and social impact teams, so that we’re coordinated, we’re speaking together with one voice, and we’re finishing each other’s sentences.
Big Law Business: How do you use law firms?
Laben: We use them for M&A, although we do a lot of work in-house. My preference is to do as much work in-house as possible. I think that’s how you grow individuals in the department. I think it’s great when someone can say, I want to give this a shot, so we can bring in outside counsel to help teach them, and then we’ve got that skillset internally. I think that’s very important for how we grow lawyers throughout their career. The last one is litigation. We have very little litigation, thank goodness, knock on wood, but that’s also area of practice where you need to know what you’re doing, familiar with the form that you’re arguing in, and so we’ll rely on them for that.
Big Law Business: With the recent change in presidential administrations and the amount of work that Booz Allen Hamilton does for the government, have you seen the work that you do in the legal department change at all?
Laben: We’re obviously paying very close attention to the change in the administration. I think we’ve not seen significant change at this point, but it’s up to us to stay aware and make sure we’re understanding the needs of our respective clients. They’re looking at their budgets and they’re looking at what they’re going to do, and we’ll be responsive to that. Their problems will not go away and one of our key skillsets is to help them figure out how to problem solve with efficiency and efficacy.
Big Law Business: Could you some give advice for junior lawyers who are looking to start their in-house careers?
Laben: I think one of the things to look for is training. If you go in-house, and have the opportunity to go in-house, make sure that the company you’re going to is willing to invest in you the same way you’re willing to invest in them. If you can find a place like that, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The key area you need to focus on here is your view of risk taking. One of the reasons I think I’ve progressed in my career is I’ve focused on risk, and figured out how to mitigate it, how to manage it, figure out what is the risk profile, and figure out how can I be influential in sharing that with others. That would be an area that a new lawyer or a young lawyer should really look at and start to think about, because you don’t want to be the conservative lawyer who’s always missing opportunities because you’re saying no, but on the other hand you don’t want to miss a big problem because you’re not paying attention.
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