JENNIFER: What are your current responsibilities?
NICOLE: During a typical work week, my main tasks include responding to subpoenas and managing litigation. I perform as much work as possible in-house and outsource certain legal matters, such as litigation and intellectual property, to outside counsel. I manage Withum’s engagement letters, NDA’s, software and vendor agreements, as well as many other legal agreements that arise as a result of the services Withum provides. I recently became involved with renewing Withum’s various insurance policies and working to make sure Withum has the right policies in place. I also work with outside counsel for our M&A and I am involved with certain aspects of the due diligence process. Withum is a national accounting firm and I work closely with our human resources department to make sure we are complying with the ever-changing employment laws and tracking the differences by state. I also work with our IT team on cyber security matters, document retention issues, and data privacy issues. I am involved with the firm’s office leases and renovations. Finally, I am also always available when my colleagues want to bounce ideas off of me.
JENNIFER: What are you currently working on?
NICOLE: As of today, I am working on a few subpoenas and other litigation-related matters. I am currently updating our various engagement letters for the 2019-2020 season based upon feedback received during the year. I am involved with due diligence relating to M&A activity and I’m also working on a potential new lease for one of our offices [Note- shortly after Nicole was interviewed, she gave birth to her second child, a healthy baby girl. She is currently on maternity leave].
JENNIFER: What was the path you traveled to reach your current position?
NICOLE: I worked as a litigator for eight years primarily defending accounting firms and solo practitioners. One day, I was asked to attend a litigation strategy meeting in place of a colleague at the last minute. At that meeting, I met someone who recommended me to Withum’s CEO as a candidate for the company’s first General Counsel. It was a fortuitous meeting. I was hired as General Counsel at Withum while pregnant with my first child and began working near the end of my second trimester.
JENNIFER: What were the points in your career when you experienced the greatest growth?
NICOLE: There are two moments that instantly come to mind. The first moment was during the time I was working on a major litigation involving a pop artist. I was traveling extensively, constantly preparing for depositions, and spending a significant amount of time on motion practice. This litigation was both fascinating and challenging as it allowed me an opportunity to enhance my litigation skills and expand my legal knowledge. However, it also confirmed for me that I did not want to litigate for my whole career. The second point was during my first two years at Withum. I had to expand my thinking about risk management by seeing things from the perspective of a businessperson as well as a litigator.
JENNIFER: What are your tips for working with the C-Suite?
NICOLE: For starters, you need to know and understand the company’s culture and how your role fits within that culture. Next, it is important to understand what is and what is not important to members of the C-Suite so that you can structure your communications more effectively.
JENNIFER: What are your top recommendations for risk management?
NICOLE: Risk management is a substantial part of my job. Being a General Counsel who focuses on risk management requires me to approach each day knowing that I will face both interesting opportunities as well as challenges. From ensuring that engagement letters are properly negotiated and executed, to managing subpoenas and litigation, a General Counsel needs to be able to confront challenging situations and respond rationally and confidently. To be an effective risk manager in this role means being a person that the firm can rely upon … not to be an expert in every type of law, but to be able to obtain the key information and relevant legal standards and apply them to the current situation at hand.
JENNIFER: What advice would you give to a first-time GC in your industry?
NICOLE: When I first began working as a GC, I had a whole slew of goals that I thought I would be able to accomplish and implement easily. However, I learned instead that I had to be adaptable and flexible, focusing on what the people that I work with really needed my skills for. Their needs shaped me into the GC that I am. All of the GC’s that I deal with handle things a little differently based upon the needs of the firms that they work for. I also think it is important to know how to shine and show what your value is to the firm.
Overall, I would say be patient and be realistic about your goals when first starting in a GC position.
JENNIFER: How do you build and leverage your network?
NICOLE: I was lucky to join an existing, small network of GCs in the same industry, and which has grown over the years. We bounce ideas off of each other and discuss issues facing the industry. My outside counsel also helps me expand my network, introducing me to new attorneys that I can rely on. This is very important to me because I can’t be an expert in every area of the law and I need to be able to have a network to rely upon when the unexpected happens.
JENNIFER: What are the most important qualities you look for when hiring outside counsel?
NICOLE: I look for attorneys who see the big picture. I prefer working with attorneys who see value in investing in our relationship and understanding our firm culture. I also need to work with attorneys who are available, responsive and willing to adapt to the firm’s needs. I appreciate attorneys who are easy to converse with, and do not make matters more stressful, complicated or expensive than necessary.
JENNIFER: Before hiring someone, how do you decide whether they are cultural fit for your company?
NICOLE: Currently, I am the only attorney working as Withum’s in-house counsel.
JENNIFER: What is the best part of your job?
NICOLE: The people. The Withum team members are generally very appreciative of the work that I do to help them get where they need to be with clients and to protect the firm. I have a feeling of appreciation and accomplishment that I didn’t necessarily feel as a litigator.
JENNIFER: List 3 adjectives that describe the way you work and lead.
NICOLE: Wow! That’s a tough one. I am approachable, responsive, and persistent. I also try to work with a bit of humor to keep everyone calm and positive regardless of the situation at hand.
JENNIFER: Tell us about a problem you solved or an obstacle you overcame while practicing law.
NICOLE: Phishing attacks are a problem that many firms, including Withum, have had to contend with. It was imperative that Withum find a way to alert and educate its team members about the ways in which these attacks occurred and what to look out for.
JENNIFER: What challenges do you think in-house attorneys will face in the next four years?
NICOLE: I think it depends on the industry in which they work. For example, accounting firms are changing how they do business and what kinds of services they provide. I need to learn all about various kinds of advisory services Withum now offers, such as cyber security. I think it’s a matter of getting ahead of the curve and staying up to speed on the services that the firm or company that they work for provides.
JENNIFER: How have you seen the legal industry evolve during the time you have been practicing law?
NICOLE: I don’t know how well the legal industry has adapted to the fact that their clients are not always willing to pay high hourly rates. I prefer working with firms that understand the firm’s concerns about costs and therefore offer flat fees or discounts, which help us keep costs under control.
JENNIFER: How/what would you like to see change in the legal industry?
NICOLE: I think I would like attorneys to stop filing frivolous lawsuits.
JENNIFER: What’s an idea or technology that changed the way you work, and where did you come across it?
NICOLE: I use Practical Law, which I believe was recommended to me by another GC. As the only in-house counsel in a firm of 1100 people, it gives me a valuable starting point from which to determine key language that should be included in various types of agreements, as well as having one place to review and learn the law in various jurisdictions. It also provides updates to changes in the law and highlights the key changes that one should be aware of.
JENNIFER: How do you employ technology to carry out your responsibilities?
NICOLE: I will say that I am probably not the most technologically savvy attorney. I currently do not have a contract management system. Because we have a cloud-based system, I can access all of my files regardless of where I am, which is really valuable. I rely heavily on my cell phone.
JENNIFER: What product/service would you like to see that will help you work more efficiently and effectively?
NICOLE: It would be great to have a product that would be able to makes changes to documents based on my prior revisions in other documents.
JENNIFER: What would you like service providers – i.e. –law firms and vendors to know about how they can be of greatest value to you?
NICOLE: Stop writing one-way agreements, especially vendors. We unfortunately spend a lot of time negotiating unreasonable terms that no client would agree to, particularly with vendors.
Jennifer D. Silverman is Head of the Firm’s Data Privacy and Cybersecurity Practice. She utilizes her extensive knowledge of trademark, copyright, trade dress, rights of publicity and privacy laws…