Attorney at Law Magazine Salt Lake City Publisher John Marciano sat down with Gwyn McNeal to discuss her transition to corporate counsel and what advice she would give to attorneys.
AALM: How did you make your transition to corporate counsel?
McNeal: I worked as outside counsel for Extra Space Storage for a couple of years before coming in house. I had the opportunity to see firsthand that Extra Space was not a sleepy little storage company, but a sophisticated real estate company that was extremely acquisitive and led by a strategically focused management team. Anyone thinking of leaving private practice ought to work for the company as outside counsel before they join to ensure that it’s a good fit. Similarly, I wouldn’t hire someone in house unless they had previously done work for me.
AALM: What qualities do you look for when choosing outside counsel?
McNeal: Outside counsel needs to have technical expertise and be willing to learn about Extra Space and the self-storage industry. In addition, I really appreciate working with attorneys who understand that negotiations are not about being the loudest voice in the room and that careful listening generally gets you much further in a negotiation than constant talking.
AALM: How would you describe your ideal relationship with outside counsel?
McNeal: They don’t have to be my friends; I don’t need to be wined and dined. I want to know they are willing to listen to my issue and help me find a business-oriented solution in a timely manner. My best outside counsel are the ones who can give me off-the-cuff advice, even if they need to follow up after with research. If I’m calling, I don’t have time to wait for associates to research a matter and write me a memo.
AALM: What major concerns does your company’s CEO or board raise about outside counsel? How do you address those issues?
McNeal: One of the first employees that our chairman and CEO hired was a general counsel because they had plans to build Extra Space into a large public company and they understood that a good lawyer helps make that path much smoother. Consequently, I have always had the full support of my C-suite to hire great outside counsel.
AALM: What challenges do you face when working with outside counsel?
McNeal: Management of expectations. I want a realistic timeframe of how long a project will take. If outside counsel tells me it will take until Wednesday to turn a document and it’s not ready until Friday, I am much more frustrated than if they had just told me Friday to start with.
AALM: In what areas do you believe the legal community has fallen behind in the business world?
McNeal: The legal community is still obsessed with paper (which is the only logical explanation as to why I am still asked for my fax number). We use docu-sign and cloud-based drop boxes for everything, as does much of corporate America.
AALM: How has technology changed your business and your legal needs?
McNeal: Connectivity. Rightly or wrongly, people used to think that in house counsel led a very 9-5 existence. Everyone in my legal department is used to responding to email and reviewing and drafting documents at all times of the day and all days of the week. That is not always a good thing, but it is the reality of smartphones and tablets and the amazing ability we have to conduct business anytime and anyplace.
AALM: Share a unique story with our readers about a positive or negative outside counsel experience.
McNeal: This past summer we closed a $1.3 billion acquisition. We hired three local law firms and several national firms to assist us. What I appreciated most about this transaction was that every one of our firms collaborated with each other and did not get territorial about the work. It was truly a team effort to execute a very complicated transaction on time, which in turn allowed our operations team to hit the ground running.
AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys wishing to switch to general counsel?
McNeal: Be prepared to be a problem solver and not just a risk spotter. I have known a lot of attorneys who can tell you all of the reasons why you shouldn’t do something, but when you ask them to help you solve the problem, they have no response. If you want to be in house, you need to be prepared to be a business partner who also offers great legal expertise. Your job is to manage risk not just by spotting it, but also by finding solutions that make financial sense.
AALM: What advice would you give to attorneys looking to win your business?
McNeal: I want to work with counsel who helps us solve problems in a way that can be a win-win for both sides. Extra Space works hard to protect its reputation as a company that is fair and honest; first because it’s the right thing to do and second, because the self-storage world is small. The guy that we buy a property from today will very likely have another property for sale in a few years. We have found that when we look for mutually beneficial solutions, we are much more likely to get follow-up transactions. Outside counsel who is more interested in “winning” every negotiation instead of assisting us to close transactions quickly and fairly generally don’t get second chances to do work for us.