Thomas Sabatino is the Man of the Hour at ACC
Two days into his role as new board chair of the Association of Corporate Counsel, Thomas Sabatino could use a cup of coffee. Its Tuesday morning at ACCs annual meeting in Orlando, and Sabatino wends his way from the celebratory 30th Anniversary Lounge, down one of the long corridors at the Marriott World Center. As he walks, he talks, and by the time he reaches a hotel food court near the pool hes recalling how he and former ACC president Frederick Krebs got stuck in a malfunctioning elevator in Rome six years ago. Sabatino, whos the general counsel of Walgreen Co., jokingly refers to this as their bonding moment. Several months later, Krebs asked him to become an ACC board member.
Sabatino fills his self-serve coffee cup, and an ACC staffer passes by in a whir. She stops just long enough to tell him that this mornings risk management course has 150 people in it, and he tells her thats good to hear. They try to keep me up to date, says the chair, whos still somewhat incredulous at just how packed his schedule has been: breakfasting with chapter presidents, and welcoming new members, and then attending a chief legal officers receptionin addition to appearing on panels.
Therell be a lot more to come during his term leading the board. As ACC passes the three-decade mark, Sabatino is thinking about what comes next. Hes focused on two big things: advocacy on hot-button issues for the in-house barsuch as protecting privilege and right to practiceas well as how to keep expanding ACCs global presence.
So while meeting attendees witnessed Sabatinos humorous touch at Sunday evenings awards dinner (Im getting tired just reading this, he said, part way through reciting aloud one winners list of accomplishments), they also heard his conviction about ACCs position as an advocate for in-house lawyers during a Monday morning panel, where he referred several times to the erosion of and constant assault on privilege between in-house attorneys and their business clients. If not us, who? he said to the audience, and that about sums up his thoughts on ACCs need to take the lead on this issue. We are the best place for the in-house counsel bar to have advocates and to push advocacy forward, he says.
Sabatinos has had a lengthy and varied in-house career. Only a few years after earning his J.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, Sabatino was recruited to go in-house at Baxter International Inc. in 1986. The company had a division that sold computer systems to hospitals; he had quickly developed an expertise in software contracting by doing work for Boston-based tech firms like Lotus Development Corporation.
At Baxter, he learned one of his most important career lessons from boss Marschall Smith (whos now the general counsel of Archer-Daniels-Midland). He taught me that if you understand what drives the business, you can be a much more effective lawyer, Sabatino says. And with Smiths encouragement, Sabatino often traveled to be onsite at business units in Florida, New York, and near Washington D.C.
People sometimes say, Well, if youre too close to the business youll lose your independence and your objectivity, Sabatino says, but he disagrees If you let that happen, that can happen. But if youre a good balanced lawyer, you actually gain so much more from that.
In 1990, Sabatino left Baxter, and ran a medical products manufacturer. But a couple years later his old boss Smith called him upthis time to come work for him in American Medical Internationals legal department in Dallas. Then, when Smith departed AMI in 1993, Sabatino stepped up as acting general counsel at age 35, and soon thereafter as the companys permanent GC.
A self-described generalist, Sabatino went on to series of GC posts in different industries. He returned to Baxter in 1995, and served as general counsel from 1997 until 2004. That year, he was tapped to fill the general counsel seat at pharmaceutical company Schering-Plough Corporation. He stayed there until the company completed a merger with Merck in 2009.
Next up was an unexpectedly short tenure as general counsel of United Airlines. The companys merger with Continental wasnt in the picture when he signed on in March 2010. After that deal was complete, Sabatino decided the company was no longer for him and left in December of that same year.
Then along came another surprise: Walgreen Co. When a recruiter approached him he demurred. His concept of the drug-store proprietor was that of a corner store. Why would I want to do that? he recalls thinking. But he was soon convinced otherwise. Not only is it much bigger than I ever imaginedthe company has $70 billion in revenue and perches at No. 32 in the Fortune 500but it has so much more complexity to it, he says, pointing to the in-store clinics and the companys specialty pharmaceuticals business as examples. The company is also looking to go international, having recently acquired 45 percent of the stock of the European pharmaceutical and beauty company Alliance Boots.
For all the major deals Sabatino has worked on, much of his time has been spent fixing up legal issues at companies, too. When he entered Schering-Plough, for example, he needed to implement a $500 million consent decree the company had just signed with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He also helped the company reach a $345 million settlement with the Pennsylvania Attorney General and a $465 million settlement with the Massachusetts AGpotential bet-the-company things, he says.
Those experiences informed his thinking on the important of protecting privilege for in-house counsel. Frankly, when I was in the crucible of this, there was a lot of pressure to waive privilege. And thats tough, he says, adding that, increasingly, If you dont do it, then you wont be viewed as cooperative.
Sabatinos depth of passion about this topic is clear, and its just one of many things that will be on his plate while leading ACCs board of directors. Hes finished his coffee today in Orlando, but hell definitely be needing more as he moves forward with an agenda thats filled with the most pressing issues for the entire in-house bar.
See also: "In-House Networking is the Star of the Show at ACC in Orlando," CorpCounsel, October 2012.