Carla Michelotti, executive vice president and general counsel of advertising giant Leo Burnett Worldwide, was working in her office one day in July when she received a phone call from Marlena Peleo-Lazar, a friend, client and the chief creative officer for McDonalds. The friend told Michelotti, “I need you to come down to the conference room on the 19th floor. I need to talk to you.”

Michelotti, who didn’t even know that Peleo-Lazar was in the building, was also expecting a conference call and asked if it could wait. Peleo-Lazar said no. So Michelotti went downstairs to find the entire board of the Chicago Advertising Federation waiting for her. The head of the federation announced that Michelotti had won the 2009 American Advertising Federation Silver Medal Lifetime Achievement Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions to the field of advertising. Michelotti is the first lawyer and the second woman ever to win the award.

“It’s a huge honor for any attorney to be recognized by a business community,” she says. “That’s what I find very special about this. This is really an award for a business person.”

Michelotti has spent the past 30 years in-house at Leo Burnett, where she has always made a priority of staying involved in the business side of the company. Since she began law school, the business role of in-house counsel has remained central to her career goals.

“As a leader in the department, I certainly encourage people [to] understand not only the legal issues, but to be able to identify business goals, resolve and mitigate business risk and drive business needs,” says Michelotti, who has never worked for a law firm and is the former chairwoman of the American Advertising Federation. “That is the joy of being inside counsel, as well as the challenge.”

She received the award Oct. 27 at a luncheon in Chicago.