Ling-Ling Nie serves as general counsel and vice president for ethics and compliance at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where she serves as chief legal counsel for the Institute and is a member of the President’s Cabinet. Here, Ms. Nie discusses her approach to her leadership style, the importance of diversity of experience, gender and race within your team and her hopes for the future of the legal profession.
CCBJ: What led you to your current role with Georgia Institute of Technology?
Ling-Ling Nie: A few years ago, when I was the chief compliance officer at Panasonic, I happened to be at the right place and at the right time in my career when Georgia Tech was searching for a general counsel.
I had never thought about working for a university before, but when I learned what they were looking for,it became a really exciting opportunity. The president who hired me—he's since retired—wanted to build out a compliance program at Georgia Tech that was based upon what you see in the corporate world.
He also wanted to develop a best-in-class legal department that echoed what you might see in some of the most respected companies in the world. He had recently completed an internal reorganization, which elevated the legal function as a critical component of business operations, and wanted to bring someone on board who could set a new vision for the team as a high value-add, strategic partner.
This challenge really piqued my interest from a professional perspective, and when he explained that he was willing to make the necessary investment to achieve that, I accepted the role. It’s been a really rewarding two years of intense learning and growth, and I'm enjoying it every day.
Tell us about your leadership style and who and what has influenced it.
I think the greatest professional influence on my leadership style has been Damien Atkins. He was my mentor while I was with Panasonic and also the general counsel during the majority of my time there. Even after he moved on to other roles, he continued to be someone who was always in my corner and who invested valuable time in coaching me and teaching me really effective mental performance skills I would need to help me be at my best.
He is also someone who cares about the people on his team. At Panasonic, we weren't attorneys who were just there to do the work—we were human beings who had lives, who had outside interests, who had families, and he had a sincere curiosity about learning all those details. And when someone genuinely has an interest in you as a person, you just want to do your best every day in the job. It really motivates you.
He is also the type of leader who will give you the runway to do your job. He empowered everyone who worked for him so that we had the confidence to go forward and solve problems on our own and make decisions on our own. These are things that I've taken with me as I moved on in my career journey, and I try to be that type of leader to the many talented professionals who are currently on my team.
What qualities do you look for when you're hiring new people for your team?
I value diversity in the broadest sense—race and gender diversity are incredibly important, and so are things like diversity of experience and thought.
I want a team of people who have come from different types of working environments, like law firms, in-house organizations, government, and nonprofits, as well as different types of industries. I have found that bringing together professionals with a wide range of experiences and perspectives allows us to find new and fresh ways of overcoming challenges and getting the job done. So, when I'm looking at potential new hires, I look at where they've worked and what problems they have solved, and I try to put together a team that collectively has an assortment of unique experiences and skill sets.
On an individual level, I look for people who are strong communicators. Specifically, I value people who can take a complicated problem and bring clarity to it by just putting it in really simple terms. And that's really important when you're an in-house lawyer—to be able to communicate in plain language with your clients. It’s actually a very difficult skill and one that people often assume they have, but when asked to do it, it can be quite challenging.
I also look for people who have good judgment and who can size up a situation quickly and make sound recommendations, and who also know when to involve others on the team or myself, if it requires that level of collective attention.
Integrity is also very important. I do think the legal department should be a model for the company in terms of ethics and integrity. It's important that we demonstrate that every day in the way we act and the things that we do.
And I also look for people who have grit—someone who's not afraid of hard work and will utilize all the resources at their disposal to achieve the outcome that they’re trying to achieve. This high level of perseverance and follow-through is not something you find in everybody, but when you do find someone who has that quality, it's quite incredible, and it inspires the broader team as well.Overall, I look at a team as a cohesive unit. You need to have the right people in the right positions, and they have to have the right chemistry and be able to relate to each other and have complementary skills.
What's the best career advice you've received?
I happened to be working at the U.S. Department of the Treasury during the financial crisis, and one of the privileges of having worked there during that time was interacting with some of the brightest minds from Wall Street who were lending their expertise to help our nation reset our economy.
There was one executive in particular who shared his approach to his career, which was to treat it the same way as a financial portfolio. And he found that the key to a fulfilling, rewarding, interesting career is to diversify. He encouraged me to be curious and to move across industries so that I would always be challenging myself and developing the depth of knowledge and life experience that comes with moving out of your comfort zone.
Are there any changes that you're hoping to see within the profession?
I'd like to see increased awareness and action to address the enormous pressure that attorneys face every day. When I began my legal career, a judge told me that lawyers suffer from the highest rates of substance abuse and depression among professionals, largely due to the tremendous stress of their roles. The pandemic has heightened this stress, but has also created a more empathetic environment where it is more acceptable to speak about these vulnerabilities openly, and I hope that the legal community’s response to that will persist into the future and reassure everyone that it is more than ok to want to take better care of their physical and mental health.
Published April 9, 2021.