Stephanie Fields Photo By Bob Stefko

Stephanie Fields is more than two decades away from facing decisions about how she wants to live in retirement. But as general counsel of Classic Residence by Hyatt, which operates 20 senior residential communities, she is getting an advance, inside view of what retirement might look like–and she likes what she sees. Although Fields is based in Classic Residence’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, she occasionally visits the communities.

“Every now and then they unchain me from my desk, and I get to go out to the communities and meet people,” Fields says. “Our residents are an amazing mix of people who have done amazing things in their lives, and it never ceases to be fascinating to hear their stories. It’s really a terrific thing when you go out there and see that they are extremely social and extremely engaged. It’s not what you think of when you think of the old version of senior living. It’s really a vibrant community.”

A privately held corporation founded in 1987 by Penny Pritzker, who remains the chairman, the company develops and manages independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing facilities housing 6,000 people in 11 states. That provides a wide scope of work for Fields and the seven people in her legal department.

“We run the gamut from development issues to regulatory issues and the normal operational issues. We do it all,” she says.

Fields came to Classic Residence as general counsel from its sister company, Hyatt Hotels, after working at three New York law firms as a litigator.

Q: What did you do after law school?

A: I was struggling between doing securities law and litigation. And of course when I came out of law school, the market had pretty much crashed. Firms were imploding; the specialties securities firms were not hiring, so I went into litigation. I went to a small firm because I thought I would get the most experience at a small firm. And I certainly did.

Q: What was it like working at a small firm?

A: I was working three weeks as a lawyer and my firm told me, “You should go to court today and argue this summary judgment motion,” and, of course, I had never been to court before. In the old days in the New York Supreme Court they had motion day. It was a zoo, a gazillion people there for motions on every kind of case. [My colleagues] said, “Don’t worry, you will be there all day long, and you will see what everybody does, and you will get a good sense of it.” And of course I get there, and I was No. 1 on the calendar. I had written out my argument, so much so that I had written, “Good morning, your honor. My name is,” and my name. There were 100 lawyers sitting behind me. I was shaking and reading every word of the argument, so the judge said, “Counsel, put down those notes and talk to me.” Then I had to wing it. So I had been right when I said working for a small firm would get me the most experience.

Q: How did you end up at Hyatt?

A: I was working at another New York firm where Hyatt Hotels was a client. I had been spending a lot of time working with them in the [Chicago] corporate offices getting ready for discovery for a lawsuit. I was there for 10 weeks commuting from New York, and while I was there, somebody resigned from the legal department. They asked me to come work at Hyatt. I had never in a million years expected to work in-house. I was a litigator and never saw my path as in-house because litigators rarely get that opportunity. After a lot of thinking about it, I decided to give it a try. So I came to Hyatt Hotels in 1999. I dealt with all the noninsured litigation and my clients were public relations, marketing and sales.

Q: How did you become a GC?

A: I really didn’t know much about Classic Residence because the companies are very separate. But I ended up working on a case [with the former general counsel of Classic Residence] because Hyatt Hotels was named in a case that related to Classic Residence. He was moving into a business role and needed to find a successor. So he approached me and said, “We are looking for a general counsel. Why don’t you think about it?” I became GC of Classic Residence in August 2003.

Q: How is your department structured?

A: When I started it was just me and an executive assistant. So I had the great opportunity to build this department one person at a time. It’s both the legal department and risk management. We have four lawyers including myself, one risk person and a claims analyst who works for her, and two assistants.

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

A: The most challenging thing is the sheer diversity and variety of things we handle. When you walk into the office, you may have an idea of what you think you are going to do that day, but rarely does it ever work out to be the case. That’s also what I like best about the job.

Q: What are the unique legal challenges facing your department?

A: We are in a highly regulated industry. From a regulatory perspective, our communities have assisted living, independent living and skilled nursing, and there are separate regulations for all of those things, and another level of regulation for continuing care retirement communities.

One of the most challenging aspects is keeping up with and complying with the regulatory framework. Every state has different regulations and requirements. Developing these projects is challenging because there are regulations involving when you can start construction and when you can start taking deposits, and how you construct a skilled nursing facility pursuant to the standards.

Q: How has the recession affected your department?

A: Things become even more challenging. There are more issues that people need assistance with in the company. Lawyers always get busier when things are bad. But we run on a pretty lean budget so I haven’t had to reduce staff.

Q: What has been your greatest accomplishment as GC?

A: I am most proud of the team that I’ve built. We have an incredibly high-functioning, responsive team of people that work in the legal department and they are great team players. They work really well with the business people. The thing I am most proud of is them.

Q: What advice you would give to someone wanting to become a GC?

A: First, work at a law firm and get the most out of the training a law firm can give you. And then, when transitioning in-house, understand that it is not at all like working in a law firm.

The transition is difficult. What is so different is that there are real people standing outside of your door wanting to know what to do. At a law firm you present options and memos, but you can’t do that when they are standing outside your door. Third, don’t underestimate common sense. Common sense gets you a long, long way.

Q: What is your dream job?

A: I joke that we are going to find an island paradise somewhere and run a little beach bar. It would be perfect.