Philip Paccione has won prestigious awards for his work as general counsel of Skechers—for which he has been the only GC, helping to lead the company from startup to shoe-industry staple. Yet, he’s the kind of man who insists on describing his career path as “typical.”

Paccione’s “typical” path started at the ripe old age of 15, when his sophomore history teacher lit a fire that would lead him to law school. Instead of teaching history through memorization, Paccione’s teacher took an adversarial approach, emphasizing that there were two sides to everything, and encouraging students to take a position and defend it. Paccione, who says he wasn’t a strong math student, thrived in the analytical environment, and his teacher took notice, suggesting that he consider a career in the law. By the time he reached college, Paccione knew where he was going.

From the time he entered University of California – Irvine as a political science and history major, Paccione focused on a career in law, but he took a brief detour to New York to attend the prestigious graduate journalism program at Columbia University. After college, Paccione briefly pursued journalism, a career he says he felt would allow him to use the same skills as the law while exposing him to more subject matter. Although he left the program early to attend law school at Georgetown University, Paccione eventually returned to Columbia to finish his journalism degree because he doesn’t like “unfinished business.” This is the drive, so typical of Paccione, that helped him hit the ground running as Skechers first—and only—GC.

Q: How did you get your foot in the door at your first job?

A: The summer between my second and third years of law school, I got a job at the now-defunct Finley, Kumble, Wagner. The problem was I went back to school and the firm dissolved, so I had no place to go after my third year of law school. However, somebody from Finley, Kumble, Wagner, who was going to another firm, Chadbourne & Parke, had liked my work the summer before and took me with him.

Q: What was your career path like between that first job and the decision to go in-house?

A: It was a typical one. You spend a few years at a firm and you think, “Well, I’m really not happy here.” Basically, to summarize my career path, it was like a lot of associates’ in the ’80s and ’90s. I was highly mobile, bouncing from job to job the minute I got bored.

Q: Why did you decide to go in-house?

A: When I was outside counsel at Kelley Drye & Warren, I did a lot of work for LA Gear and the management group that founded LA Gear. After [the management group] left LA Gear, they founded Skechers. So I stayed in contact with them and told them I’d like to go in-house. They already knew me, but they called me in for an interview and I said, “Listen, even though I’m going in-house, I want you to know that I have no corporate experience, my transactional experience is minimal, I’ve done 10 years of straight litigation.” And basically they said, “We prefer to have litigators here, and nothing you guys do is rocket science anyway, so don’t worry about it.”  

Q: What are the biggest differences between working at a law firm and in-house?

A: In a law firm, a lawyer is a celebrity. The lawyer is what’s making money. In a company, a lawyer is a necessary evil. In a footwear company, the celebrities in the company are the people who are innovative and designing your product, and if they have to deal with you, you’re taking time away from them. A lot of lawyers do not understand that A) in a company, nobody really cares that you’re a lawyer, and B) that the function of the company is not to practice law—it’s to provide goods and services. You’d be surprised how many in-house people run into that problem when they come from the outside.  

Q: How did you first get the inkling to go in-house?

A: First, I knew the reputation of the people from LA Gear. I knew that they were very exciting entrepreneurs to be around. No. 2, I didn’t like the law firm environment; I wasn’t well-suited to it. Billable hours, keeping track of my time, it wasn’t something that I felt comfortable with after a while, and I didn’t see my future in a law firm. And then the other reason is, I figured, if you’re going to have crazy clients, it’s better to have one crazy client than 50.   

Q: Tell me about your career path within Skechers.

A: I was the first lawyer hired by Skechers, and I was hired as general counsel, but at the same time, because the company was growing by leaps and bounds, there were other opportunities along the way. So I started the Business Affairs department, and I’m exclusively responsible for signing all the celebrity talent who we use for endorsements. I really started that from scratch, and I personally signed Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Matt Dillon, Kim Kardashian, Rob Lowe and Carrie Underwood over the past 13 years. 

Q: Is Skechers involved in pro bono work?

A: I’ve gotten Skechers involved [in charitable work]. In May 2010, I won an award from the Boys & Girls Club of Santa Monica as businessperson of the year. I was instrumental in bringing young kids and touring them through Skechers so they could see how business works from the ground up. I’m also instrumental in getting the company to make contributions to various charitable organizations around town. 

Q: What’s your proudest moment?

A: I have two: In 2001, the Los Angeles Daily Journal, which is the premiere legal publication in Los Angeles, voted me one of the top 20 lawyers under the age of 40 in the state of California. And just last October, the Los Angeles Business Journal voted me the top corporate counsel of the year in public companies.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about working at Skechers?

A: I’ve been here for 13 years. Through good business times and bad business times, No. 1, I love the people I work with. And No. 2, it’s never boring.

Q: What is most challenging about your work?

A: Prioritizing. So many important issues arise on a daily basis, some of which get resolved, and some of which drag on over to weeks, months and years. For example, a piece of significant litigation: What do I finish first? What do I move along? What do I delegate? What do I call outside counsel on? Prioritizing is very difficult because of the vast breadth of issues that come in.

Q: What’s your advice for young lawyers who aspire to become general counsel?

A: If you want to be a GC, first, you really have to understand the business. Learn it and make that the top priority. And recognize you’re in the service industry and you need to understand that as the lawyer in the company, you’re not the most important person in the world.

Q: If you couldn’t work in law, what would your dream job be? 

A: Does trust fund baby count? It’s as far from any reality I ever had, but if I had to pick something, I’d say teaching in a good university because I’ve always liked the academic life.