“Taking the plunge to move in-house early in my career was a defining moment.”

Name: Tom Sabatino

Title: Executive Vice President and General Counsel

Company: Aetna, Inc.

aetna

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?

Tom:  I did not have a defining moment when I knew.  It came to me a little at a time.  Observing a family friend who was a lawyer in my town inspired me to explore the law.  Taking several law related classes in college impacted me.  And reading Karl Llewellyn’s classic book The Bramble Bush sealed it for me.

Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?

Tom: Taking the plunge to move in-house early in my career was a defining moment.  My first manager there (Marschall Smith) taught me the need to understand the drivers of business to be an effective lawyer in the corporate world.  Many others along the way, both lawyers and non-lawyers, have made me recognize the leadership skills needed to be a great GC.  For example Fred Hassan, the CEO of Schering-Plough taught me the need for emotional intelligence as a leader. And those that I have had the honor to lead inspire me every day.

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?

Tom: Successful lawyers think beyond the legal issues.  What is the problem we are trying to solve?  And how can we achieve the optimal outcome?  Sometimes that is through litigation or another legal strategy, but sometimes its finding another way.  I look for that “peripheral vision” in the lawyers with whom I work.  I think I have that and have seen that in other successful GCs.  Plus high emotional intelligence and intellectual curiosity are critical.

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?

Tom: I’ve been involved in some industry changing transactions and bet the company litigation that I think of as highlights of my career.  But the thing I am most proud of is the accomplishments of those with whom I have worked.  I keep a list of the people that have worked for me who went on to become GCs or have other significant roles.  I hope I have had some part in their accomplishments.

Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?

Tom:  Yes.  I have had mentors, both formal and informal throughout my career.  And I try to be one to others.  I think it is incredibly important to have someone you can trust to give you advice as well as open and honest feedback.  It’s important to know your strengths and developmental needs, and a mentor can be invaluable in coming to that self-awareness.

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?

Tom: Two countervailing changes. 1. The growing importance and influence of general counsel on the running of an enterprise.  You need to have a seat at the table on all major decisions, and give your advice, both legal and non-legal, in order to optimize the outcome.  2.  The view by certain groups (e.g. regulators,) that in-house lawyers need to be a watchdog for these groups in overseeing corporate behavior.  The most successful in-house lawyers, especially GCs, have to find a way to balance these two competing imperatives.  Walking on a tightrope – electrified.

Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?

Tom: Probably the most daunting was joining a company facing two Department of Justice investigations into our marketing practices, where an adverse outcome in either case would have killed the company.  We overcame it by keeping our heads about us.  We worked very hard to marshall the right arguments and demonstrate that the company deserved to survive.  It was a painful and expensive process, but we did indeed survive and eventually thrive.

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?

Tom: It’s about recognizing each person for the skills and experiences they bring to the table.  It’s about hearing each person’s voice and including each person equally.  And it’s about breaking down those barriers to full participation and diligently (and at times ruthlessly) eradicate those barriers.   You need to not only “walk the talk” yourself, but you must not tolerate those who don’t.

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?

Tom: Great question!  I have loved my career.  Maybe that is why I keep taking on new GC roles!

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?

Tom: Take the time to listen and learn.  I would have given myself that advice when I first became a GC.  When you are a new GC, you want to show everyone that you have it all figured out and that you deserve to be there.  The truth is you never will know it all.   So take the time to listen to the people around you, learn from them, rely on them and be the leader and coach your team needs.

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.

Tom: I love being on the water.   We have two boats (down from three) and get out when I can.  On my boat, I can relax my mind, recharge and get ready to face what comes next.

Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )
Tom: Given the fact that I have been GC at 7 companies, it would be #TheItinerantGeneralCounsel