Career Development

Clear Principles Give the Legal Team Freedom to Roam

Conrad Brooks, general counsel with AXIS Capital, talks about his unconventional career path, his personal leadership style, and what he looks for in new hires.

CCBJ: Please tell us a little bit about what led you to your current position at AXIS.

Conrad Brooks: My path to this job was somewhat unconventional. I was an aeronautical engineering major in college, but I ended up switching to geology when the math started becoming a little much. We called it “rocks for jocks”, but of course now I am proud of my degree in the natural sciences. After graduation, I served for 11 years as an officer in the U.S. Navy. Toward the end of that time, I started a part-time, evening M.B.A. program in order to gain more overall business knowledge. After leaving active duty, I headed off to law school and ultimately landed in the securities and mergers-and-acquisitions practice at one of the large law firms in Atlanta.

I really enjoyed my time there, ultimately joining the partnership and staying for a total of 10 years. I learned about an opportunity at AXIS through a friend, and joined the company 14 years ago, initially as securities counsel, and then later as corporate counsel. Now I’m in my fifth year as general counsel and corporate secretary. It’s been quite a journey.

How would you describe your leadership style, and who do you believe has influenced it?

I’ve been very fortunate during my time in the Navy, and then at the law firm, and now here at AXIS to have been exposed to some exceptional leaders and mentors. Through those experiences, I was able to observe and pick up a good deal of practices and principles that I synthesized and expressed in my own way. Having said that, there is no doubt that many of the foundational leadership lessons that I learned came from my military service.

Generally, I like to keep it pretty simple. I aim to set a few clear guiding principles and expectations for the team. Within the Legal/Compliance department here at AXIS, our main mandate is to protect the ship, so to speak, in our role as legal guardians of the corporation. Within that framework, we seek to serve as effective business partners, which goes beyond just serving in an advisory capacity. So, I use the word “partners” intentionally.

Another critical element is knowing your people and looking out for their welfare. At AXIS, we try our best to get the hiring right. The next step is to train and equip our people to handle their responsibilities. And then we empower them by letting them know that we have their backs and trust them to do great work. At that point, it’s important to give them room to roam and operate to develop their own style and voice as they work with their internal clients, while offering mid-course corrections from time to time, as needed. Then we do our best to recognize and celebrate successes. This has proved to be a pretty effective formula, and more often than not you’ll be amazed at what your team can produce.

Another observation, for any senior leader, but especially in a general counsel role, is that the eyeballs are on you, so be prepared to act accordingly. How is your work ethic? How do you treat others at all levels of the organization? Do you demonstrate professionalism? That all matters because your words and actions have impact.

A final principle I will mention – and I think this has been especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic – is that in a work-from-home environment, it’s almost impossible to communicate too much. It’s human nature to want to feel part of the group, to be in the know and be included. So, even at the risk of over-communicating, we have been intentional about connecting frequently in various ways with our team members.

What are the qualities you look for when hiring new people for your team?

Let’s stipulate that being bright is a baseline requirement. Beyond that, I look for highly caffeinated, hard-working doers. In fact, I am willing to sacrifice blue-chip academic credentials for energetic, curious lawyers. We also value a willingness to take on broader work responsibilities and learn new things. We try to screen for people who are enthused about making the jump from what likely was a more specialized practice, especially if they are coming from the law firm environment.

We also place a premium on collegiality. We favor positive, friendly people that you enjoy spending time with. There are many cynical lawyers out there, and I generally find that mindset to be unhelpful. In fact, personally, I like to keep in mind the Teddy Roosevelt quote, paraphrased, about giving credit to the ones that are in the arena trying to get something done, not the ones criticizing from the sidelines.

And finally, good communication skills. You have to be able to translate potentially complex legal points to your various audiences or make nuanced business concepts clear to outside advisors. This skill is absolutely critical to effective lawyering.

What would you say is the best career advice you’ve ever received?

I have a few things to share. First, and this may be especially relevant for junior law firm attorneys who might be interested in switching to an in-house environment: Don’t short-circuit your initial training by leaving too soon. Law firms can be rich training grounds with exposure to a wide variety of complex legal issues and access to some real powerhouse experts in the various disciplines. Being in that ecosystem is a great way to build your conceptual tool kit. Also, especially in those early days, you really need to roll up your sleeves to develop some technical expertise because that’s going to be foundational to your brand and what you do thereafter.

Second, I would advise people to seek broader responsibility at any opportunity, even if it means taking on things outside of your comfort zone. I remember being a junior securities lawyer and somehow getting pulled into the Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust regulatory world. Looking back, it was a great opportunity to stretch and grow, and I still occasionally draw on some of that learning.

Third, make sure you own your work and take responsibility for your actions. That is pretty basic advice, but I think it goes a long way towards establishing your personal credibility both in the workplace and beyond.

And finally, I would say that it’s really important for all of us to keep in mind that although our careers can be important elements of an interesting, fulfilling life – there is more to life than work. Make sure to dedicate meaningful time for family, hobbies and other interests, whether exercise, travel, religion, music, charitable work, whatever gets you refreshed and energized. Find some balance as best as you can.

It was Groucho Marx who said, “If you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.” I think Groucho had it right. Life’s way too short to be miserable.

Are you hoping to see any changes moving forward within your profession?

I am fortunate to be the sponsor of the corporate citizenship initiative at AXIS. That work has given me a great opportunity to reflect on a corporation's broader role in society, beyond the maximization of profits. I think that these lessons apply equally to the law profession – and diversity and inclusion immediately comes to mind. I feel the profession has made positive strides in gender diversity, but is that reflected at the more senior levels? What about racial, ethnic and other types of diversity? We clearly still have a long way to go, and it’s important for organizations to develop a specific work plan to realize those outcomes – not just platitudes. I also believe there’s plenty of room in the profession for better innovation, use of data, project management skills and the like. Here, our legal professionals run point for a variety of interdepartmental projects, and it is increasingly important to be able to bring those tools to bear.

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