DLA’s Stasia Kelly is a legal first responder – rushing toward disaster, not away from it.
CCBJ: Your career path, it’s fair to say, has been out of the ordinary. Early on, you were with Wilmer Hale. Talk about how you got started in law.
Stasia Kelly: I went to law school at night while working for Martin Marietta, now Lockheed Martin. I didn’t have the experience of being a summer associate that many law students do. As I was interviewing, Wilmer stood out as having incredibly smart people, and we just clicked. Every law firm has a different personality. Our mutual personalities fit.
Before I started, however, my husband was transferred to Dallas to be Special Agent in Charge of the Dallas FBI office. So I practiced with a great Dallas firm, Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal, for four years. When we returned to Washington, I started at Wilmer as a fourth-year associate. I made partner three months after I had twin boys. I was in the financial institutions regulatory group, doing a good deal of corporate and white-collar SEC work. I loved Wilmer. I never would have left, but a headhunter called in 1995 about becoming general counsel of Fannie Mae.
As a young Wilmer partner, I served on the compensation committee. One of my skillsets, which is somewhat unusual for lawyers, is managing people and putting teams together. I like figuring out what’s going to make someone successful, and I don’t have a problem figuring out how to transition someone out of something that isn’t working, even if that meant out of the firm.
In 1995, law firms didn’t value that skillset. Lawyers at most firms practiced in silos. I think that’s why they call it “private practice.” I knew that at Fannie Mae, as a corporation with a different management structure than a law firm, I would get to use that skillset. I hated leaving Wilmer, and I’m still very close to a number of the folks there, but it made sense to risk going in-house. I stayed for four and a half years at Fannie Mae and loved it. The people could not have been smarter, more creative, more insightful. I changed and upgraded the team, which is what I really like to do.
And then I got a call in 1999 from another headhunter. That’s when I was convinced by the CEO of Sears, Roebuck to move to Chicago with my then 10-year-old twins and become general counsel.
Many executives find it challenging to move from one sector to another as they get typecast. You’ve served as general counsel of four distinctly different organizations. How did you make those leaps?
CEOs looking for general counsel do look for industry experience. I was coming out of a financial institutions regulatory background when I joined Fannie Mae, which made sense. When I joined Sears, however, I didn’t have any retail background. Sears had one of the largest credit card businesses in the world, and it had an issue with credit card reaffirmation agreements. My job was to rebuild the compliance team. That started me on what became my passion: crisis management. I enjoy rebuilding teams and being in the center of stress-filled situations. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s an important part of my career.
In 2002, I was recruited back to D.C. to join the telecommunications giant WorldCom/MCI, which by then was in bankruptcy. Bernie Ebbers and Scott Sullivan had already left the company. It was the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history to date. It was total crisis and chaos. Nobody knew if WorldCom was ever going to come out of bankruptcy. It was a great experience, with a very happy ending for the 40,000 employees of MCI when we were acquired by Verizon, post-bankruptcy.
From there, I went to AIG. I had become a team builder and a handler of crises – a fixer of issues – which is an industry -and-location-agnostic skillset. I had a huge and wonderfully talented team at every company I was general counsel of, so my team could handle the issues of the industry. I just had to make sure that I had the right people in place who did and who would tell me what I needed to know when and then help me sort through crises and prioritize. That brought me to AIG, which was an insurance company, but AIG also had many other businesses, so I could use all my past experience from my other GC jobs.
What did you learn in your roles, and what strategies did you use to get up to speed quickly?
At a law firm, typically you have a client and you need to know everything about that company – its sector, its business – that you can. When you’re outside counsel, clients give you what you need to understand the issue and give good legal advice knowing that they are paying for the time you spend on their matters. It’s a limited amount of information to digest.
When you’re in-house, you’re bombarded with information from day one. Everybody wants you to know everything. Sorting it out, prioritizing the issues and understanding where things sit in the business is the top priority. Number two is getting to know the folks responsible within the business – the faster the better. That’s critical. Your business colleagues have to know you and your team well enough that you can help them manage risk. Not avoid risk. Manage it, and not put the company in undue jeopardy. That requires building trust. The more you understand the people, the more you will understand the business, the better off you will be in providing the right advice.
Going into different industries, I spent time beforehand and in the first few months learning as much as I could, especially the issues the industry was facing and the issues they were going to be facing in the future.
How did you decide to join DLA, and what was the transition back to private practice like after 15 years in-house?
I had become vice chair of AIG, and I had all the support groups reporting to me. This was in the middle of the financial crisis, and for reasons not relevant to this conversation, I decided it was time to leave. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. Many law firms I had gotten to know invited me to join them as a partner. I talked to all of them, and had difficulty figuring out what I was going to do. I wasn’t going to bill time and build a practice at this stage of my career. My value was more in my experience as a GC than as outside counsel. DLA was the one firm that said, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with you, but why don’t you come and try it out? We’ll put something together and we’ll see what works.” That’s what I did!
Everybody was very busy, so I had to figure it out on my own. I did a lot of work with our young lawyers on how to develop business. I made a couple of CLE-accredited movies. Then, recognizing I had all this management experience, I was invited to join the Office of the Chair as one of the two co-managing partners for the U.S. firm. That was fabulous. I am now the sole U.S. managing partner for the firm. I never expected that would happen when I went back to private practice.
There is definitely a potential career path for GCs who want to go back into private practice. Figuring it out is challenging, but it’s been very rewarding for me.
What’s your advice to other in-house counsel returning to private practice?
Network, network, network. There is no structured path. Talk to as many firms as you can to get an idea of how you would fit. It’s like being a first-year associate. Every firm has its own personality. Where are you going to fit in? Will the firm recognize and value your skillset? You have to figure out what you bring to the party and you have to figure out if there’s a party you can bring it to.
Stasia Kelly is a US managing partner at DLA Piper. She has extensive experience as both outside counsel and as a general counsel and works closely with boards of directors and in-house legal teams, helping clients design and implement effective governance and compliance programs. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published June 1, 2018.