Thomson Reuters’ Practical Law The Journal: Transactions & Business (PLJ) recently spoke to Katherine Knight, Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary of Mitsubishi Motors North America, Inc., about the top goals for the legal department.
PLJ: How is the legal function structured?
Knight: Loosely. We are a small team handling an extremely broad range of matters, so we do not adhere to rigid hierarchies or siloed subject areas. Everyone has their jurisdictions, so to speak, but they overlap like a Venn diagram, and we all pitch in when and where needed.
PLJ: What are the top goals or areas of focus for the legal department?
Knight: As an entirely new legal department, we are seizing the opportunity to do things differently and constantly evaluating how we can improve as a team and company. We are also focusing on being extremely proactive by finding out what our individual clients really need, what the business really needs, and what value we can add in new and varied ways to help our clients realize their strategic objectives.
PLJ: How does the legal department avoid being perceived as the “office of no” while still ensuring it helps the client avoid liability?
Knight: Easy — we say yes! That’s a joke. In reality, we engage with our clients early and often to help them better analyze risks. We clearly understand our clients’ goals and work with them to achieve an alternative plan if the first one exceeded the legal risk tolerance. We guide our clients to decisions through an informed risk/reward analysis, and we do not substitute our business judgment for theirs.
Katherine Knight of Mitsubishi Motors North America
PLJ: What three things does a law firm need to do to impress you?
Knight: 1) Take time to really understand who we are, including our non-legal business strategy, pain points, and general risk tolerance, and use that to tailor legal advice. I like to work with outside counsel who demonstrate that they care about our business holistically.
2) Work with the legal department as proactively as we work with our internal clients. Integrating into our team involves helping us to anticipate our clients’ needs and contributing to the legal department’s own objectives. This could include anything from sending me an interesting article to offering to assist with a project on a flat-fee basis.
3) Law firms do not impress me as much as people do. I enjoy talking (and laughing and commiserating) with real humans. Do I want to have a coffee or a beer with you? Then I am more likely to call you.
PLJ: If not an attorney, what would you wish to be?
Knight: If not an attorney, I would be a geologist or seismologist, with preference given to working in Yellowstone National Park. The geology of the Yellowstone area fascinates me.
PLJ: What is the best career advice you have ever received?
Knight: Very early in my in-house career someone I greatly admire told me, “Katherine, nobody loves the law more than you.” That was not entirely a compliment! The point was that while I may be deeply engaged in a subject, clients do not want to hear me wax poetic about it. They need quick, to-the-point guidance on how the law impacts them and what to do. They need advice and solutions. That conversation took place over a decade ago and it still drives my daily approach and interactions.
PLJ: What advice would you give to a prospective General Counsel?
Knight: I have had an interesting career in a short period of time, and I believe I owe much of that to refusing very few phone calls and burning even fewer bridges. My advice to someone seeking a General Counsel position would be to avoid being pigeonholed, take risks, and keep your eyes and ears open. Your next role may come from an unexpected place.
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