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?
Burt: In the 4th grade, I did a project about different careers. In connection with that research project, I realized that lawyers worked on some of the most exciting M&A transactions in the U.S., Canada, andaround the world. Today, I not only enjoy working on complex transactions,but my job has given me the opportunity to travel to locations from Londonto Hong Kong and from San Diego to Saudi Arabia.
Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?
Burt: Early in my career I had a supervisor who challenged me to learn all the details of how to calculate the value of a stock option utilizing a Black-Scholes model. The importance of that lesson was that it required me to go deep in the analysis around stocks, stock options and general equity compensation. It also helped me to realize that as lawyers we have to be comfortable pulling out a calculator or crunching through an Excel spreadsheet as we discuss issues with our business partners.
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?
Burt: Fundamentally, successful lawyers have to be inquisitive and enjoy solving problems. Equally important, you have to be able to relate to other people and communicate well. This means being able to tell a story in a way that resonates with your audience. I have found that some of the best GCs have the ability to digest a really complicated issue and then boil down the salient parts of the information to the most important issues. To that same point, I look for individuals, whether as potential new in-house counsel or as outside counsel, who can communicate in plain English rather than in complex legal language. I know that someone really understands what they are doing when they are able to communicate in a way that makes it easy for everyone to understand.
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?
Burt: Over the last few years, some of the lawyers who have worked for me at Southwire and at my previous employer have progressed in their careers and now serve as GCs at other companies. I am most proud of them and how they continue to do well and make the world a little better every day.
Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?
Burt: I am continuously mentoring people at different levels of their career, both lawyers and non-lawyers. There is a big difference between serving as a mentor and serving as a sponsor. Both roles are critical to helping the next generation advance in their career. We know that our success is built upon the success of those who have gone before us. As we continue to progress in our own careers, it is important that we look back and help those who are not as far along the road.
Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten 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?
Burt: The role of the GC is continuing to evolve. In the last few years,the role of the GC as an advisor to the CEO has continuously expanded. Now GCs are called upon to share their views on topics ranging from business strategy, financial statements and IT infrastructure. In fact, one of the areas that GCs are taking a bigger role in is managing the risk around cybersecurity. GCs have to be familiar with the barriers in place to defend against cyberattacks, they need to know who to call internally and externally if a threat is detected, and they should understand the role of all the players involved.
Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?
Burt: Early in my career people underestimated my abilities. They assumed that because I was quiet that I did not have much to share. I think this is something that many introverts face until they realize how to “get out of their office and walk around.” Although you may still need to find a quiet place to recharge, it is important to remember that the dialogues and discourses that we have with other people are important to help both us and them to grow.
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?
Burt: Diversity and Inclusion are critical to me as an individual, as a GC,and as a member of the executive team of my company. There is a concept known as the “shadow of the leader” that I really take to heart. From that, I know it is important to remember that, no matter where I go, or what room I enter, I represent a larger group of people of color. I think an important thing for all GCs to remember is that we have a voice to help shape the careers of other lawyers. To do that, we must be conscious of the actions that we are taking every day. Collectively and individually, we can advance the careers of in-house lawyers and outside counsel.
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?
Burt: Aside from the practice of law, which I love, another interest that brings me joy is encouraging students at lots of different levels. Collectively, my wife and I have encouraged college-aged students, high school students, and elementary school students. If I could, I would find a way to encourage students so that they know that it is possible to dream big and to go after that dream.
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?
One piece of advice that I would tell my younger self is “You have lots of mentors even if you do not always know that they are serving in that role at the time.” People are always looking for that one critical mentor who will make a difference in their life or in their career. Sometimes it does not work that way. I think it is important to realize that there are nuggets of information that you can learn from the people around you and all these nuggets can make a huge difference in what you are able to achieve. Early on, I took the lessons from my parents, from my siblings, and from teachers with me as I started work. Today, I continue to rely on the encouragement of my friends, my family and, especially, my wife. The strength that I show today is built upon the love and encouragement of so many other people. This is so important in keeping grounded — I would have shared that with my younger self.
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.
Burt: I enjoy cooking. Bringing together great food, wonderful friends,and a relaxing environment is really special. It helps me recharge and reconnect with the broader world outside of work.
Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )