Michael Holston

Michael Holston thought he had his career carved out perfectly while studying to be a mechanical engineer as an undergrad at Notre Dame. Then, his older brother–at the time a law student at Notre Dame–asked him to play a witness in his mock trial, and a switch flipped.

“Just watching the case, I realized it was a lot like a sport,” he explains. “It’s a competition with a winner and a loser, and I really liked that.”

Holston got his feet wet by taking a few undergrad law classes Notre Dame offered, and there was no turning back. Immediately after graduating, he went to law school at Villanova University–and a new career path was born.

Despite a deep background in math and science, Holston’s passion was for litigation. After law school, he took a job as an associate in Drinker Biddle & Reath’s highly respected litigation practice. For two years, Holston honed his litigation skills there. Then, he took a position as an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia for three years, prosecuting everything from street crime to sophisticated white collar crime. He made his way back to Drinker, where he eventually became partner and worked exclusively as a litigator for 10 years before moving over to Morgan Lewis in 2005.

Since the 1990s, Holston had been working as an outside counsel for Hewlett-Packard, first at Drinker, then Morgan Lewis. In 2006, the company came under scrutiny in what became known as the “pretexting” scandal–resulting in the resignations of its chairwoman and GC. CEO Mark Hurd looked to Holston to fill the top legal spot.

“The board, the CEO and I had worked very closely together through a very tense time,” Holston told InsideCounsel in August 2008. “They saw me in action and determined that I was a good fit.”

For the past three years, Holston has continued to prove himself the right choice to be executive vice president, general counsel and secretary of one of the world’s largest information technology companies. In addition to the many roles the legal department plays, it has had a big hand in helping shape HP’s green initiative–an effort that recently landed the company at the No. 1 position in Newsweek’s list of the greenest companies in America.

Q: How was your team involved in the company’s green initiative?

A: We’ve been very involved in a couple of ways. By the end of this year our goal is to recycle more than 2 billion pounds of technology products. Obviously that comes with a lot of compliance issues regarding how we can do that around the world. We are also heavily involved with our printing business. Ink is a series of chemicals, and that is heavily regulated business, so we have to use products that are permissable around the world. We have to be compliant in the law where ink is manufactured and where it’s shipped. A lot of times, that may not be the same.

We also have been a leader in the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC). That organization is pushing hard to get companies to comply with its code of conduct, including our supply chain.

Companies can be leaders in driving “environmental change” behavior. We have 300,000 employees around the world. We have the ability to influence hundreds of thousands of people throughout our supply chain.

It’s also good business.

Q: What are your primary responsibilities as GC?

A: I break it down into three big areas. I manage our legal and governmental affairs, our privacy function and our philanthropic foundation.

We have a total of about 1,000 people in the legal department worldwide–425 are lawyers. I am the principal lawyer for our CEO, executive team and board. One of the appeals of the job is getting engaged in the big issues–the major litigation and transactions.

Q: What do you think makes your legal department unique?

A: It has been my stated mission to build the best legal and government affairs department on the planet. We have an advantage. We do business all over the world, and we touch a lot of spaces. We are a hardware and a software company. As a lawyer, you can work on many different issues. You can spend your entire career here, and be rotated regularly and constantly do different things. We have been very aggressive in talent management, which makes people come and stay. We are out there looking for driven lawyers who want to work hard and be in the best legal department in the world.

Q: What is the most challenging part of your job?

A: On the people management side, it’s retaining this great talent. As I keep getting very talented people, I keep challenging them. The key will be to make sure they are all challenged enough.

Q: What do you like most about the work you do?

A: I love getting engaged on the business side of these issues and being able to influence decisions before they are made. I used to clean up messes. As a white-collar criminal lawyer, something bad had already happened by the time I got involved. Now I can help avoid the problems on the front end.

Q: What advice would you give a young lawyer who would like someday to become GC of a large company?

A: I tell young lawyers, “We at HP provide opportunities. You need to own your own career. Think about what you want to do, and go after it.”

The best way to advance is to be great at the job you’re doing today. When we are considering promotions, we ask, “Who is great at what they are doing right now?” We are not looking to promote someone who is doing an OK job. We want people who stand out in what they are doing now.

Q: In addition to being lauded for the green work you’ve done, I hear the legal department has a strong pro bono initiative as well. What is it?

A: As a team, we have signed up to take on U.S. veteran cases. We are helping soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan get the medical benefits to which they are entitled. I can very much envision HP trying to get a lot more companies engaged.

From the community service side, it’s the right thing to do. Pro bono brings the team together–both lawyers and nonlawyers. It energizes people.

Q: If money, family, etc. weren’t an issue, what would your dream job be?

A: I love my time in public service, and I could imagine an active career on the pro bono side.