Sonya : When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?
Kamau : I grew up in a house full of attorneys. My punishment used to be sitting in the back of a courtroom, and I had oral arguments to negotiate my allowance. I probably wanted to be an attorney when I realized how much of my upbringing was training to be one.
What I love most about the job is that it basically boils down to understanding someone’s goals, the obstacles and risks that stand in the way of those goals, and my role is to help them find the easiest path through. Being good at this job requires an amazing combination of listening skills, predictive analysis, and the ability to cut through to the heart of what’s important.
Sonya : Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Kamau : I always have to start with my father. During my formative years, I remember him being a law school professor and a federal judge. Personally, I know him to be a fantastic sounding board for me and countless others. That’s my definition of a great counselor, attorney, partner and friend. That’s what I strive to live up to on a daily basis.
Sonya : Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?
Kamau : The attorneys I’ve most admired have all been excellent listeners, and they have an ability to make complex issues seem simple. They are calm under pressure, and they keep the end-goal in mind at all times.
That is what I value in people I work with, and definitely at the top of the list when deciding to hire.
Sonya : What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?
Kamau : Professionally, I am most proud of the number of people who value my opinion on things they might not normally view as a “legal” issue. Good attorneys have answers to the questions people know they need an attorney for. The great ones in my opinion are there to add value when you don’t even know there’s a question being asked; all that person knows is that having you sit in on the conversation leads to good things.
Sonya : Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Kamau : I have had mentors and sponsors all throughout my career. Some volunteered for the role, others just didn’t kick me out and I kept asking questions. My predecessor at Heidrick, Steve Beard, certainly was both a mentor and sponsor. Without his investment in me, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work in Asia and so many other aspects of my growth that prepared me to be a GC.
I try to lead my team with the goal of paying forward the help I’ve received over the years. We spend a lot of time focusing on the next step in each of my attorney’s development, and on giving them a more complete view on where their work fits into the bigger picture for the firm. If I don’t give them the chance to grow beyond their current jobs, I don’t think I’ve done my job – for them or the firm.
Sonya : Think about the legal profession over the course of the next 10 years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?
Kamau : Data is changing so much of how we work … I don’t think the legal field is in any way immune. I think decision-making will continue to be driven more and more by data, rather than anecdotal experience of attorneys. I think in-house departments are going to work harder to own the data from their day-to-day decisions in ways that haven’t always been the priority. Getting and giving quick advice has always been paramount in-house. I think that shifts a bit to getting and giving scalable advice that can be captured and utilized more efficiently throughout your organization. That data capture then frees up the in-house legal teams to better maximize their department spend and time on new issues.
Sonya : Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Kamau : I think every attorney who moves from a law firm to an in-house role encounters a bit of culture shock. You go from being a revenue generator to a cost center, and in a lot of cases one that has an antagonistic relationship with the people you are supposed to be helping. That can be frustrating, it can be demotivating. For me, it was something I began to internalize at times because I had never encountered situations where I thought anyone could question my commitment to being helpful.
After some trial and error, I realized I needed to double down on showing my authentic self to my colleagues. I learned that I couldn’t take for granted that everyone thought we were on the same team. I also learned that it was up to me and my department to continue to communicate the value we add to the organization on a daily basis. If we take it for granted that others will see our value-add, shame on us.
Sonya : What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?
Kamau : For me, D&I is the manifestation of two values I hold dear: always be willing to challenge yourself, and finding the efficiency in whatever you are doing. Diversity and Inclusion brings new, underrepresented voices to the table in ways that don’t allow the status quo to remain “just because.” The best answer wins, and you cannot ensure yourself that you are getting to that answer without diverse voices who are empowered to speak up and make change.
My team is diverse because diversity pushes us all to be better. We are inclusive because those voices need the oxygen necessary to push the envelope and not be afraid of saying something different.
Sonya : If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?
Kamau : Before going to law school, I thought long and hard about pursuing a career coaching basketball. I really enjoy the teaching aspects, and I think most life lessons are transferrable to things you see in team sports.
Sonya : Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?
Kamau : I would likely tell my teenage self to take more chances. I learned valuable lessons in virtually every decision I made – good and bad. The only ones I wish I had back are the ones where self-doubt or hesitation creeped in and I didn’t challenge myself.
Sonya : Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.
Kamau : I play basketball three or four times a week. My joints tell me I should quit, but I enjoy it now more than ever because the mental challenge is greater than the physical at this point.
Sonya : Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or fewer (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )
Kamau : #FindAWayThrough