Don Liu, general counsel and senior vice president, Xerox
Don Liu, general counsel and senior vice president, Xerox

Don Liu is a veteran general counsel in every sense of the word, having worked nearly 22 years out of his 27-year career in house. Liu, who is currently general counsel and senior vice president for Xerox Corporation, joined the company in June 2007. There he oversees an in-house team of 150 lawyers who handle the company’s legal affairs including litigation and patent acquisition. InsideCounsel recently caught up with Liu to discuss his challenges as GC as well as some of the innovative approaches he takes with his law department. Below is our full exchange.

Q: How does working as GC of Xerox vary from working in other industries?

Where it is different is in the substantive areas of law that you need to learn and master at some point and, because I have worked in different industries, I have had to learn the business itself and the legal issues that are relatively unique to each company, such as intellectual property law in the case of Xerox.

Q: Reflecting back on your first GC job versus your current GC job, how has your 90-day plan varied in these roles?

A lot. In my first GC job at IKON, I had to hire my entire staff from scratch immediately, as the legal department had been outsourced to one law firm. My current job required me to get to know the existing staff in my department, many of whom had been there for a long time, and to conduct approximately 65 individual meetings with management members all over the world.

Q: What are some of the professional development challenges you have experienced as GC?

When I think about leadership qualities of a lawyer, it is a unique challenge because there are relatively thin areas of formal development on those skills in any firm or law department. Our company offers an internal formal training program that is generally available to leaders across the board, not just the legal department. I make those formal training programs available to selected direct reports and I also encourage them as much as possible to learn what a leader does even outside the company.

Q: Shortly after an earnings call with your CEO and analysts, you meet with your direct reports to debrief them on the key results. Can you explain what your approach is and why this is important?

I do this to align my staff with the reality of where the company is and how the company is doing and with the strategic and tactical goals of the company. Ideally, the legal staff should be working in a manner consistent with the company’s goals.

Q: What advice do you have for inside counsel looking to advance to be GC?

The most important skill for senior leaders in house about to embark on a general counsel role is to be able to develop rapport with very senior-level executives in a manner that they can trust you. It’s not just about people skills. It’s being able to talk in a way that business people can easily understand as opposed to talking legalese. It’s very important to be able to develop good chemistry with your CEO and other top executives.

Q: What has been your biggest challenge as GC of Xerox?

Xerox is in 160-plus countries. We need to manage risks arising from obscure problems in some of the most obscure places in the world. We have put into place a process where open communication is encouraged so that legal problems can be easily identified and raised to appropriate level, even if the problems cannot be easily resolved or addressed. Open communication is key. Second, it’s important to set the right expectations from people who receive the relevant information and, third, to have all the appropriate people engaged so that you are not the only person dealing with significant problems. The objective is to have people not be shy or not to hide the fact that mistakes were made.

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

To be able to help senior management achieve the business goals. That is probably the single most important aspect of my job. If we can achieve our business goals, we have succeeded