To read more about Lalla, including his toughest and proudest moments as GC, click here.
Although Thomas Lalla has been general counsel of Pernod Ricard USA for 17 years, it wouldn’t be accurate to say he’s had the same job that whole time. The company–which fosters brands such as Jameson, Kahl??a, Glenlivet and Perrier-Jou?<
Accordingly, its legal department has grown to comprise 21 lawyers, a drastic change for a department that during his first 10 years consisted solely of Lalla.
“I can’t say the company I’m working for today is the company I was working for three, five, 10 or 17 years ago, and that’s great,” Lalla says. “I like the challenge. I’m not the kind of person that likes to stay still.”
Q:When did your interest in the law begin?
A:I grew up in Yonkers in Westchester County right above New York, and I recall, while I was still in high school, going up one day to the county court in White Plains. I sat and watched a trial and thought, this is something I’d like to do. I was always on a legal career path throughout college.
Q:What did you do after law school?
A:The summer before my last year I was an intern for the district attorney’s office in Westchester County and worked in Yonkers City Court, the biggest in the county. We got to watch hearings, trials, calendars; they allowed us to answer motions. I thought, this is something I’d want to do after law school. I started as an assistant DA in September 1975 and was a prosecutor for six years. The last major case I worked on was the Jean Harris trial–the Scarsdale Diet Doctor murder trial. That was an interesting way to end.
Q:What was it like working on such a high-profile case?
A:It was an amazing experience because it was a big celebrity case at the time, and I was the assistant prosecutor who did the research, did some of the direct testimony and did all the legal arguments during the case. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Early on I had argued for and received a gag order because there was no way I wanted to be trying the case in the press. But it was a true media circus because the international, national and local press were there.
Q:How did you end up at Pernod Ricard?
A:I was offered an opportunity to work in a law firm that specialized in beverage and alcohol law, and one of the foreign clients was Pernod Ricard. I met them back in 1983 and got to know them very well, so my involvement with this company goes back 25 years. I became a partner and then managing partner at the firm, and then I decided I wanted a change. I happened to meet with someone from the company who said it would be great if they could get me in-house. I said, “Well, make me an offer and let’s see what we can do.” A few months later, I was here. I started out as their first general counsel in the spring of 1991.
Q:What legal issues does your industry deal with?
A:The alcoholic beverage area is heavily regulated. Thanks to the 21st Amendment, there’s a federal law, and every state has its own law, which–contrary to the normal system–trumps the federal law. So there are basically 50 state laws, a separate law
in the District of Columbia, as well as the federal law. You essentially have to deal with 52 different sets of laws. It’s a very technical area, to say the least.
Q:How do you ensure that your products are marketed responsibly?
A:I was very concerned when we took on the Seagram brand. I realized we were going to be taking on brands that had heavy marketing spend–brands like Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, etc. So now one of our attorneys has a group of four people working for her to make sure our ads comply with various state laws, but more importantly with responsibility. We set up our own internal code of responsible marketing that incorporates more stringent requirements than, say, the industry code we have here in the States or the code they use in Europe. This is an industry in which you could very well get yourself into trouble if you’re not acting in a responsible manner in terms of advertising
Q: Is diversity a priority in your department?
A:I’m a big advocate of diversity and try to make the legal department the model for diversity in the company. As lawyers, particularly as general counsel, we need to focus on that issue. We can’t expect other people to practice diversity if we don’t practice it ourselves. When I’m making a decision, sometimes I’ll walk into a room with the lawyers and ask what they think. I want to hear all different points of view, and if I have people who are all like me, I’m not going to have that. That’s the major benefit of having a diversified workforce–you end up with a better work product at the end of the day.
Q:How does your trial attorney experience play into your in-house role?
A:I always view negotiating as being in a courtroom without a judge, where one party ends up playing that role. The trial aspect teaches you how to size up the people you’re working with, witnesses or your clients. And it teaches you how to conduct yourself–that’s the big thing. You also have to have the presentation skills so you can stand up in front of a group of people and get people to see your point of view. Those are the persuasion skills you have to learn along the way.
Q:If you weren’t a lawyer, what would be your dream job?
A:A teacher. Last year I started teaching at Pace Law School–products liability in the spring, and mergers and acquisitions this fall. I like getting involved with the students because I find they ask great questions that make me rethink why I’m doing things. I like that challenge of having someone come in and ask a question that tests all your assumptions and presumptions, and then having to explain it in a way that makes sense to somebody else. And to be teaching and to see people understanding and giving it back to you is a really satisfying thing.
Q:What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A:I’ve been a runner for 30 years, and I work out almost every day. I try to start my day off working out; this morning I went for a run. It gives me that time to think about what I’m going to be doing over the course of the day. When I used to try cases, I would write my opening and closing statements when I was out for a run. It’s certainly given me discipline and also that space that a lot of people don’t always get to be able to think creatively and come up with new ideas and different ways of looking at things.
Q:Any perks of the job?
A:We get a product allowance, and we do have a bar where they have happy hour on Thursday nights.
A:For sentimental reasons, Chivas Regal.