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As the role of the general counsel continues to expand, perhaps it should come as no surprise that more of them seem to be turning up at political conventions. At least that's the impression conveyed by some people who attended this year.
Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft Corporation, has been sending government relations folks and others from his legal team to conventions for years. But in 2008 his people reported that more GCs seemed to be presentand finding the experience valuable. His colleagues suggested that next time Smith consider coming along.
After consulting with a few GCs, Smith decided to take that advice. He says that he's not only glad that he did, but he's convinced he was part of a trend. "I do think that there was an upsurge [of general counsel attending] that started four or eight years ago, and that is continuing," he says. "And I do think that one sees even more general counsel at the conventions than CEOs."
Roger Nober, the chief legal officer of BNSF Railway Company, in Fort Worth, has attended a number of political conventions over the years, including the last two. And his equally unscientific impression is also that there were more GCs this time. Why might that be? Companies are paying more attention to regulatory agencies, and it behooves their lawyers to keep a close eye on Washington. "When I talk to my peers," Nober says, "they spend more of their time on regulatory legal matters than they may have five or 10 years ago."
Smith offers a similar explanation. "I think it reflects two things," he says. "It's more common for general counsel to have responsibility not just for the company's legal issues but for broader regulatory, government affairs, and political issues as well. That makes sense," he continues, "because all of these things are increasingly intertwined. Second, it really is the general counsel who spends more of her or his time on these issues than the CEO." He adds that there were "dozens" of GCs at each convention.
What do they do once they get there? Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a nonpartisan D.C. think tank, says most of the business people connected to law departments are there to build relationships. Even the government relations types, who are used to working the pols and their staffs, are mostly there to network. "I doubt there's much business conducted at the conventions in the sense of lobbying particular issues," says Atkinson, who has been attending since 2000. It's more about meeting, greeting, and chatting over a beer.
Nober agrees that, at least for him, the purpose isn't to accomplish specific goals. Being there "doesn't help in the sense that you're going for legal matters," he says. "The biggest benefit was the gut-level feel of what people are thinking, especially the policy makers." That window "helps you understand the process and manage your legal affairs. Particularly if you're not from Washington," adds Nober, who spent 15 years there himself, holding a number of positions beginning in 1994, when he was the first Republican chief counsel of the House Transportation Committee.
Smith and Microsoft took a different approach, which was far less common than Nober's. The company did have specific policies it was promoting, and Smith, who was the senior representative from Microsoft at the conventions, played a very visible role.
In addition to the speeches on the floor, conventions spawn innumerable events held all over town. These include lunches, dinners, receptionsand more than 100 panel discussions that go along with them. Smith estimates that he appeared on two or three panels a day during the Republican convention in Tampa, and about the same at the Democratic do in Charlotte.
Some of the panels he appeared on were organized or moderated by Atkinson of the ITIF. These gave Smith an opportunity to talk about Microsoft's two big issues: education and immigration. And sitting on the panel beside him were several members of the House of Representativespeople he wanted to reach. For a general counsel, says Atkinson, this is an effective way to get a message across. "Hearing from them personally is a lot more valuable," Atkinson explains, than if a politician were just to read "an article [a general counsel] wrote." Smith also scheduled one-on-one conversations with other pols, including U.S. senators.
This is not to suggest that it was all buttoned-down. One Kodak moment in Tampa (repeated in Charlotte) was a panel on which Smith found himself seated between Arianna Huffington and The Black Eyed Peas singer and front man will.i.am (who impressed Smith with both his insights on technology and his enthusiasm for science).
Microsoft also hosted its first convention-related event. It was produced in conjunction with The Atlantic and National Journal , and the topic was education. It's an issue that the company has decided to make a prime focus of its philanthropy. But it also has profound implications for its business. As Smith explains, Microsoft has thousands of open jobs that it can't fill with U.S. employees because there's a dearth of qualified candidates in the so-called STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). And the immigration laws make it difficult to fill them with foreigners (hence the company's special interest in that issue).
Not all GCs who attend feel compelled to go to both. Ford Motor Company's David Leitch and Facebook Inc.'s Ted Ullyot, both of whom served as lawyers in the administration of George W. Bush, went to Tampa and skipped Charlotte. Bruce Kuhlik, GC of Merck & Co. Inc., made it only to Charlotte. Some companies send a group representing the law department to one convention and another group to the other. But BNSF's Nober likes to go to both himself "because we have to deal with both sides." Even though he, too, has worked for Republicans, from his company's perspective, "I'm an agnostic," he says. "We support the people who support us."
Nober didn't stay for the whole show in either city. A day or two was enough for him. In Tampa, he was struck by how many Ron Paul supporters there were. In Charlotte, he was wowed by Bill Clinton's speech. (And, in a nod to his bipartisan household, he bought an Obama T-shirt for his wife.) He crossed paths with Smith, but his approach couldn't have been more different. Asked if he avoids publicity, he almost tripped on himself to answer: "Oh, at all costs. I'm not there to be interviewed." He rarely speaks on the record for his company, he notes.
He goes to see, not to be seen. "You get a sense of the process that you can't otherwise get," Nober says. It's not the same as watching on TV. "The vibe, look, feel, and atmosphere. That's what you get from being there that you can't get any other way.
"I got to see and be part of the process," he adds. "There's nothing else quite like it."