Sandy Rhodes admits to having had some trepidation when he moved from the security of a long-established Tampa law firm to the often-risky world of retail. But his wife, Paula, sealed the deal that eventually made him general counsel of woman’s clothing retailer  Chico’s FAS Inc.,  which operates 1,100 stores nationwide under the Chico’s, White House/Black Market and Soma Intimates brands.

“There was some concern about getting into retail,” Rhodes recalls. “But during one conversation, Paula was taking a look at a Chico’s catalog and she said, ‘You know, I get these about once a month and there are always two or three things I have to have.’”

Millionsof women—primarily of the Baby Boom generation—agree, finding that Chico’s colorful, comfortable garments suit body shapes and lifestyles that many other retailers spurn. But that hasn’t insulated Chico’s from the traumas of the recent recession: In January 2009, the company reorganized under a new CEO, a turnaround effort that is still in progress.

While he admits there were inevitable stresses associated with the leadership change and accompanying reduction in force, Rhodes doesn’t regret his decision to take the job at the Ft. Myers, Fla.-based retailer. He sees it as another learning experience among many he has had since going in-house.

“As with most other companies, we have learned to do more with less,” he says. “An event like that makes you decide what is more important and what is less important, and you have to make strategic choices. A year and a half later the company is ahead of its turnaround plan, and things are going very well.” 

Rhodes was something of a late bloomer, admittedly aimless after graduating from high school. It took several years of working at jobs he didn’t really like before he finally decided he needed a college degree. As an undergrad, he became interested in attending law school.

After law school, he worked as an assistant county attorney in Pinellas County, Fla., and then at a small law firm focused on local government work. He moved to Annis Mitchell Cockey Edwards & Roehn in Tampa, with Chico’s as one of his clients. After moving to Carlton Fields along with other Annis Mitchell attorneys, Chico’s offered him the opportunity to start up its legal department.

Q: What were some of the attractions of going in-house at Chico’s?

A: I loved the idea of having one client to work for and of being a part of the business decisions from beginning to end. I had represented Chico’s for about a year and a half, and having confidence in the ethics and integrity of the leadership at Chico’s was an important factor in my decision. And just the opportunity to start something from scratch, something I had never done before, was attractive as well.

Q: How has the department grown?

A: When I started it was a department of me, which was great for getting to learn the business and all sorts of new computer skills that I did not have to master before. Over time, I have been able to grow the legal department [he now supervises five attorneys], and I also had the opportunity to start up and lead the Risk Management Department. The Corporate Social Responsibility Group also reports to me. As of January, the real estate lawyers (previously outside the legal department) came over to me, so it has been a growing opportunity.  

Q: What is a typical day like?

A: I am only half joking when I tell folks that I like to make a to-do list first thing in the morning, but my list is usually shot by 9:30 or 10:00. There is just a large variety of things that come in every day. That is one of the things that really appeals to me about this job.

Q: What are your major challenges?

A: The major challenge is the sheer variety of things my team deals with on a regular basis. This week alone—and it’s only Wednesday—we had a couple of interesting questions about the company’s social media sites. I had a question related to issues involving our use of something called “marabou trim” on one of our sweaters—marabou, I learned, is a kind of feather—I didn’t know that when the question came in. We had some trade secret issues. And we are tracking legislation regarding credit card and debit card interchange fees and some proposed privacy legislation, all of which makes the day very interesting.

Q: What IP issues do you deal with?

A: A lot of our original designs are copyrightable. We take great pains to make sure we copyright those designs, that the process is done right and our copyrights are protected. 

I encourage everyone in the business if they are out shopping and see something that potentially infringes one of our copyrights to buy it, send it to me and let me have a look at it. There are times when people knock us off, absolutely.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: The variety of issues we get appeals to my ADHD-like sensibilities. There is always something new to learn and I love that. I really like the team I work with. They are all retailers at heart, they understand retail, and that helps them be really strong, value-added business partners, as well as being good lawyers.

Q: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?

A: After I came in-house, it was a mental transition to go from being a lawyer at Chico’s to being a business executive at Chico’s with legal expertise. When I made that transition, it helped me become a much more effective general counsel.

My “ah ha” moment came in a meeting with my former boss. I was doing my hardest to demonstrate value in all the ways an outside lawyer tries to demonstrate value, by talking about the number of contracts I had reviewed, the subpoenas that had been handled and the issues that came in the door. 

It occurred to me I wasn’t really holding his attention. I later realized that nothing I had said to him was related to any of the goals or objectives he needed to report on to the board of directors. From that point forward I realized I needed to be a business person who was helping him deal with a number of issues, including legal issues.

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer who aspires to be a GC?

A: Integrity and credibility are everything. Trust your common sense. And it is always amazing that doing the right thing is always the right answer.  

Q: What is your dream job?

A: I know it may sound trite, but I think this is it. But I do harbor a fantasy of owning a really nice wine shop in Monterey, Calif.