Sybil Bates McCormack: ‘Own’ Your Decisions

Sybil Bates McCormack

In our latest Corner Office interview, we sat down with Keyfactor In House Counsel Sybil Bates McCormack to discuss her career and her outlook on the industry in the midst of the pandemic and beyond. 

AALM: What drew you to Keyfactor?

SBM: I’ve been intrigued by emerging technologies in the cybersecurity, information security and compliance spheres since I earned a certification in the field from the SANS Institute in 2017. Keyfactor is a leading provider of secure digital identity management solutions: so, when a recruiter called about the in-house position at the company, I said, “Yes.” It’s exciting to work for an employer that provides cutting edge cryptographic solutions for companies in the finance, healthcare, retail, medical device, OEM and automotive fields.

AALM: How did your experiences with CareerBuilder and Corporate Temps build a foundation for your role as In-House Counsel and Director of Contracts?

SBM: I resigned the role of Director of Strategic Partnerships and Contracts at Corporate Temps in November 2016. I entered CareerBuilder as its sole proposal writer/manager the following week. Assembling ad hoc proposal response teams proved the biggest challenge of the position. I knew I could do more, so I was thrilled when the Sr. Director, InfoSec and Compliance, suggested something new.

As a “techie” lawyer, he supported the legal department by drafting, reviewing and negotiating infosec, compliance and privacy clauses in the company’s contracts. When he offered to teach me the ins and outs of the process, I jumped right in. From that point on, I worked in a dotted line capacity between InfoSec & Compliance and Legal.

I loved the work and quickly mapped out a plan to transition into a full-time in-house role. I earned two privacy certifications from the International Association of Privacy Professionals (IAPP), obtained a promotion to IT Compliance Manager, then achieved admission into an MBA program at Georgia State University. Those achievements helped to open the right doors.

AALM: Are there any practices from your old companies that you were able to bring on board with Keyfactor?

SBM: I use verbal negotiation skills that I developed while practicing personal injury and employment law. I utilize everything I learned about drafting and reviewing contracts at CareerBuilder. I also picked up several other valuable competencies while at the company. I directly reported to the Sr. Manager, Global InfoSec and Compliance, and she possessed killer project management skills. I shamelessly appropriate all that I learned from her about “getting things done” to this day.

AALM: COVID has affected most business operations in the last year. How has the pandemic shifted your outlook on the role and efficiencies of the legal department?

SBM: The onset of the pandemic proved a watershed moment for everyone—including our in-house legal department. The fact that we rose to the occasion cemented my faith in the business and in the team. We persevered and thrived despite external hardships. The processes and procedures we’d developed and implemented toward the end of 2019 proved adaptable and robust. 2020 was the company’s most profitable year to date, and the in-house legal department played a key supporting role in that success.

AALM: What are your main goals when working with outside legal counsel? How has that changed over the years and what changes do you anticipate in the future?

SBM: I work to ensure that the in-house legal team and outside counsel are on the same page. It’s essential that we align on the nature of the work to be performed, all applicable deadlines and the financial expectations on both sides. I expect to take much the same approach to the retention and management of outside counsel going forward.

AALM: How can in-house counsel best support the overall business goals of their company?

SBM: First, establish good, foundational working relationships with the C-suite, the sales, product and operations teams and the marketing department. It is critical to one’s success in an in-house setting that those individuals trust in your commitment, your counsel and your judgment.

Second, learn all you can about the products and/or services the business provides—including its unique selling proposition. It’s difficult to successfully support an employer-client’s vision and goals if you lack clarity about what distinguishes your company’s solutions from others in the same sphere.

Third, develop and obtain approval of department-level objectives and key results (OKRs). It’s crucially important that in-house counsel obtain buy-in from the C-Suite and board of directors before implementing any strategic initiatives. Those initiatives must clearly align with the company’s overarching objectives.

Finally, implement and deliver upon the approved OKRs at the tactical level—being certain to produce meaningful reporting about outcomes. If you can’t provide supporting metrics, analytics and/or summaries, it never happened. That’s true whether you’re tasked with contract drafting/review/negotiation, providing advice and counsel regarding the efficacy of working with a prospective vendor, or overseeing the retention, supervision and productivity of outside counsel, etc.

AALM: How would you describe the culture you strive to create within your legal department?

SBM: I prioritize delivery of the kind of training that empowers new members of the team to get up and running as quickly as possible. I encourage collaboration and innovation, and I advocate strongly for all members of the team to keep learning, growing and expanding upon their skillsets.

AALM: What first drew you to the legal world? Why did you choose to pursue in-house roles?

SBM: I had entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer as far back as my early teen years. There were no attorneys in my family, however, and I knew little about what they did beyond what I saw on television. I took a circuitous route to in-house work—having spent most of the first half of my career in personal injury and, later, employment law. That said, in-house work feels like home. I enjoy negotiating contracts, working collaboratively with internal and external clients and supporting the goals of a business that’s doing important work.

AALM: Tell us one of the most important lessons you’ve learned over your career.

SBM: Surround yourself with people who possess a “can do” attitude and “never-say-never” outlook, and ignore the advice and counsel of pessimists and naysayers. You won’t always make the right choices, but at least you’ll “own” your decisions and learn to move forward with increasing confidence.

AALM: Tell us about any mentors you’ve worked with through your career and the best advice they shared with you.

SBM: I wouldn’t say he was a mentor, but a C-Suite executive at a prior company often said, “You are the managers of your own careers.” I took those words to heart and successfully transitioned into a role in an area of the law that I find rewarding. I often share the saying with others who are considering new career paths.

AALM: Do you have any advice for young up-and-coming lawyers?

SBM: Do the kind of work that intrigues you and that you expect to find the most enriching over time. Never stop learning new skills, supplementing your education or earning beneficial certifications. Most in-house lawyers are encouraged at some point to follow Woodrow Wilson’s sage advice: “Be brief, be brilliant, be gone.” Today’s in-house lawyer should take such advice with a grain of salt: Always strive for a seat at the decision table.

AALM: Tell us a little about your life outside the office.

SBM: I’ve been happily married to a bi-vocational pastor for nearly 25 years. We are the proud parents of two bright, talented kids—a 20-year-old daughter and 16-year-old son. I enjoy reading a variety of fiction and non-fiction. I also love mentoring others, studying foreign languages, exploring new restaurants and binge-watching British detective shows. One day soon, I hope to see more of the country by train.

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