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Livestrong's GC Mona Patel's Personal and Professional Rewards
During Mona Patel's first year as general counsel at the Lance Armstrong Foundation in Austin, she cut the nonprofit's legal costs by half, a feat she accomplished by handling corporate work herself, negotiating pro bono and reduced-rate contracts with outside counsel, and bringing on legal interns who work for free.
"I essentially did everything in-house that I could and only sent things out to outside counsel [that are] very specialized or very intensive," says Patel, the first GC at the foundation, which also is known as Livestrong.
Patel says that before she joined Livestrong in 2009, executives and the board prudently used outside counsel to review contracts, for example, and to handle the large amount of intellectual property work generated by the nonprofit's name, mission and ubiquitous yellow silicone gel wristband.
"That's the bulk of our legal work. Sometimes, with good intentions, [fundraisers] want to leverage the brand," she says.
Patel, general counsel and executive vice president of people and organizational development, says she built Livestrong's legal and human resources departments from the ground up. Efficiency and saving money is her goal.
"Every dollar saved is a dollar for the mission," Patel says of the $50 million organization, which raises cancer awareness and assists cancer survivors. Cyclist Lance Armstrong, who survived testicular cancer, founded the nonprofit in 1997. Patel says 81 cents of each dollar raised go to cancer programs.
Patel says she personally handles more than half of Livestrong's legal matters — mostly corporate work such as reviewing contracts — but farms out specialized matters such as litigation and trademark and licensing matters. A lot of the trademark problems stem from people making and selling counterfeit Livestrong products. However, because of tax issues, seemingly routine corporate work is complex, she says.
She says the company's legal budget exceeds $1 million a year.
Patel says she has enjoyed figuring out how to organize the legal department to save money for Livestrong, but it is a challenge juggling the number of volunteer lawyers and legal interns who work for free.
"Some days I really feel like I need to wear sneakers, because it's a lot of running around. We have so many opportunities, contracts, a mix of issues all day [including] trademark work and enforcements," she says.
Also, Patel says, she is involved in four board meetings a year, and she recently put together an extensive handbook for the board in her effort to make the nonprofit's corporate governance "very transparent."
"We want to be transparent with everything we want to do, because they [donors] are trusting our donations to go to . . . our mission," she says.
Patel says Armstrong is chairman of the board of Livestrong and she sees him at board meetings. He is a "really generous man," she adds.
Outside counsel who do work on a pro bono or reduced-rate basis for Livestrong include Douglas Mancino, a partner in Hunton & Williams in Los Angeles, Patel says. Mancino, who does work for a number of nonprofits, says he structures corporate sponsorships and licensing agreements for Livestrong. Agreements with a nonprofit are complicated because of tax issues, he says, but Patel "understands the nonprofit world and also understands the business aspects."
Patel says she traveled a "long journey" to reach Livestrong. She has experience in private practice and in-house at a variety of companies, mostly sports-related.
Patel grew up near Boston and says she always wanted to become a lawyer. One of four siblings, Patel says she was the outspoken one in the family. "I loved to read, loved to write — and argue with my parents," she recalls.
During high school, she got a job working at a law firm as a clerk, and that convinced her to pursue law as a career. She earned a political science degree from Boston College in 1995, then graduated from Harvard Law School in 1998. She signed on as an associate with Ropes & Gray in Boston, where she did corporate work, mostly for clients in the high-tech industry.
After a few years at the firm, Patel started looking for an in-house opportunity. She says she traveled on a regular basis from Boston to Atlanta for a Ropes & Gray client and was tired of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, travel hassles. She says airport security officers frequently searched her, which she believes was due to her Asian heritage.
In 2001, Patel joined Burton Snowboards of Burlington, Vt., as an attorney. Patel says it was an ideal job for her, because at the time she was an avid marathon runner and climber, and a snowboard company was a good fit. It didn't hurt, she notes, that Burlington is a "cute, quaint little town" and Burton Snowboards employees dressed casually at work and brought dogs to the office.
Two years later, Patel accepted a position across the country at Patagonia Inc. in Ventura, Calif., where she was chief legal officer and vice president of human resources. Patel says she jumped at the opportunity to become a GC and to work at another outdoor sports company.
"I love anything outdoors," she says.
In August 2007, Patel moved to Athleta Inc. of Petaluma, Calif., as general counsel and director of human resources and organizational development. San Francisco-based Gap Inc. acquired Athleta in 2008, and Patel led the Athleta legal team on the $150 million deal.
In April 2009, she moved to Livestrong.
Patel says she had done fundraising for Livestrong for several years, and she had participated in fundraising cycle rides for Livestrong, including the 2005 Tour of Hope, which went from San Diego to Washington, D.C. Patel says her brother died of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and her mother had breast cancer, so Livestrong was an organization close to her heart for many years.
"For me, you can't get much more rewarding than that," Patel says, noting that she feels she is making a contribution to something worthwhile.
She says she enjoys Austin, because she's an outdoor person. She continues to run marathons, cycles, hikes with her yellow Labrador puppy, Cash, and recently started standup paddling. She also participates in Team Livestrong events, such as last year's ING New York City Marathon and a 200-mile, coast-to-coast relay race.
Best Practices: Pro Bono and Proactive Partners
Mona Patel is general counsel and executive vice president of people and organizational development at the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which is known as Livestrong. Patel joined the Austin-based nonprofit in 2009, after a career in private practice and in-house. She joined Livestrong from Athleta Inc. of Petaluma, Calif., where she also had legal and human resources duties. Before that she had a similar role at Patagonia Inc. in Ventura, Calif. Earlier in her career, she was an associate with Ropes & Gray after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1998.
Texas Lawyer senior reporter Brenda Sapino Jeffreys emailed Patel some GC best practices questions. Her answers are below edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: Because the Lance Armstrong Foundation is a nonprofit, one of your goals is keeping legal costs as low as possible. You said that you do legal work yourself, which helps the budget. Do you intend to hire any more in-house lawyers, and why?
Mona Patel: I do the majority of the legal work in-house and send highly specialized matters to outside counsel. At this point, I do not have plans to hire another in-house lawyer, as I have several volunteer attorneys and legal interns supporting me. It's a great way for these volunteers to contribute their professional services to Livestrong, as well as a good learning experience to learn about nonprofit law.
TL: What do you do to help the company avoid legal problems, such as trademark violation litigation?
Patel: I partner with our business leads internally so we're proactive, rather than reactive, to legal issues. We also educate our team, grassroots fundraisers, Livestrong leaders and other partners about trademark and counterfeit issues.
TL: You said outside counsel do work for Livestrong on a pro bono or reduced-rate basis. What do you say to lawyers to persuade them to do the work on that basis?
Patel: I let them know we are a nonprofit and talk to them about our mission, including all of our programs and services to support cancer survivors and their loved ones. We're so fortunate to have wonderful legal partners who support our mission.
TL: What adjustments in thinking have you made in switching from the private sector to a nonprofit, and what advice would you give to others considering the same move?
Patel: In a nonprofit, every dollar saved is a dollar toward your mission. This thinking is highly applicable to the for-profit sector.
This article originally appeared in the Texas Lawyer.