Peter Bragdon vowed he would never be a lawyer. He even used that fact to kick off his law school admission essay. But he now stands at the helm of the legal department at Columbia Sportswear, one of the world’s top outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturers.
While an undergrad at Amherst College studying political science, Bragdon aspired to be a journalist. Upon graduation, he pursued that goal–becoming a reporter for the Congressional Quarterly (CQ).
During his six-year stint at CQ, Bragdon covered many legal issues. And that piqued his interest in law. So Bragdon applied for the Masters of Law Studies program at Yale University.
But once in the one-year program–which was essentially the first year of law school–he was hooked and transferred to Stanford Law to complete his JD.
After graduating in 1993, Bragdon moved to Portland, Ore., to work at law firm Stoel Rives. Taking a leave of absence from the firm after two-and-a-half years, Bragdon fell back into politics working on the Oregon governor’s task force on gaming for seven months. He returned briefly to Stoel Rives for a few more years, then was offered an in-house position in 1999 with one of the firm’s clients, Columbia Sportswear Co., where he was the second in-house lawyer reporting to the GC. In 2003, he left Columbia to work as chief-of-staff for Oregon’s governor. But in July 2004, Columbia’s GC retired, and the CEO wanted Bragdon to take over the legal department. It wasn’t a hard decision.
“Columbia is a unique place,” Bragdon says. “In addition to my legal responsibilities, I get paid to see the world.”
Q: Why is Columbia a good fit for you?
A: I am surrounded by people who are passionate about something. They love being outside snowboarding and skiing, and doing these types of activities.
I have the law badge, but I have a number of different departments that report to me, and I have the opportunity to get involved in a variety of areas of the business.
No one here is “mister” or “missus.” We wear jeans, not suits. Anyone can wander into anyone’s office to ask a question or have a conversation. But we work hard–it’s not relaxed in that sense.
Q: What do you do as GC?
A: We have four lawyers in-house–one based in Europe and three here. I have a group that does global customs and trade; another that handles labor and human rights. We also work on community affairs and real estate.
It’s not purely legal. I also have corporate communications reporting up to me–it makes sense given my background in journalism and working as chief of staff. I manage different kinds of crises and have a global reach.
Day to day, it could be anything. I was even part of a photo shoot once for a hang-tag [a brand tag attached to Columbia clothing]. A model canceled at the last minute. So I spent the day wandering around Mount Hood, having my photo taken with a baby and pretend wife. I haven’t been asked to be on a hang-tag since.
Q: Columbia is really cracking down on counterfeiting. What role does the legal department play in all of that?
A: One of the associate GCs here oversees all of our counterfeiting issues. It’s the cops-and-robbers part of the business, and we have investigators on the ground. We’re constantly chasing after counterfeiters and working with customs agents.
But in a way you want counterfeiting to get worse because you want them to want to copy you. In fact, I wish we had the counterfeiting problems Nike has.
Q: Has Columbia been involved in any high-profile litigation?
A: No. Our industry doesn’t really lend itself to a lot of litigation. We are currently bringing a case against the U.S. government over discriminatory import duties. Essentially you have a man’s boot and woman’s boot, but they have a different duty based on gender. There is no legitimate reason for it. It’s an unconstitutional discrimination claim.
Q: What do you think makes your legal department and team unique?
A: We have a tiny law firm within a larger company. Because of the nature of things, it’s both easier and harder to blend into the business. There is an eclectic mix of people and work. We get into all corners of the globe on all ranges of issues.
We aren’t siloed–the company doesn’t lend itself to that. It’s a place of great opportunity for people, where you can be anything you want to be.
Q: Tell me about your role in the company’s international presence.
A: We have subsidiaries across Europe, Canada, Japan and Korea. We work with distributors in South and Central America. We have more employees outside the U.S. than inside.
In Europe, we sponsor a Tour de France team. In Asia, we deal with business organization, factory compliance and customs issues. In Cambodia, we meet with U.S. customs and inspections. I’m always traveling to meet with distributors.
Q: What is the most challenging part
of your job?
A: The foreign law and the intersection between different jurisdictions. You can’t just deal with one country’s laws without dealing with another country’s laws. When the U.S. required companies to have a hot line under the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, there were aspects of French law that made it very difficult to do that in accordance with both countries’ laws. You have to be able to spot those things and deal with them.
Global business is getting much more complex than it used to be. There is more product-related legislation in all parts of the world. The downturn makes it even more complex.
Q: What do you like most about the work you do?
A: It’s that eclectic mix. The lack of predictability is frustrating but also wonderful. From the outside it seems simple–get some clothes and shoes made. But there is so much more to it than that.
Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like to someday become a GC?
A: I always try to make sure not to let a week go by without learning something new or meeting someone new. You just don’t know when a great opportunity will open up. I see a lot of people hoping to get jobs. But–thanks to networking–many jobs get filled before they are even open. Be in a position so when that wave comes, you’re ready to take it. In the meantime, build your skill sets.