D. Cameron Findlay, Archer Daniels Midland Company GC
D. Cameron Findlay, Archer Daniels Midland Company GC

In 2013, D. Cameron Findlay was given charge of the legal department at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), one of the world’s largest food processing companies and the current No. 27 on the Fortune 500. For many in-house counsel, a job of that stature would create immense pressure. For Findlay, however, working in such a capacity came naturally; after working as the deputy secretary of labor and GC for both Aon Corporation and Medtronic Inc., he has built up a fund of experience that allows him to tackle almost any goal. This month, InsideCounsel caught up with Findlay to get his advice for GCs starting a new role and how to avoid being pigeonholed as in-house counsel.

Q: Moving into a large company like ADM, did you have any goals for yourself when you started, and how have you done?

The first thing I did, on my first day, was to sit down with the CEO and ask her what she wanted me to accomplish. She gave me a set of objectives to accomplish, and I still work off those notes I took to this day. One objective was really to steady the ship in a way: This is a legal department that had three general counsel in about 18 months, and I felt like the legal department was a bit shell-shocked. I wanted to bring a sense of calm and decisiveness and a vision to the place. And also, this is true for any general counsel: You’ve got to get to know your businesses and your business colleagues so you can understand what they’re trying to achieve.

Q: Before moving in-house, you worked in government, notably as deputy secretary of labor. What did you learn in that role that helped you grow as a leader?

I feel that being in government for a while is extremely valuable for in-house lawyers. For me, I learned to respect and even admire career civil service workers. I think that many businesspeople have a caricatured view of people who work in government as bureaucratic, lazy, overzealous, etc. But working in government, you know that people who work there are like people who work anyplace: good-hearted, hard-working people.

I learned that the best approach to dealing with government investigations is to use facts and logic to persuade them of the rightness of your position rather than to act like a chest-beating litigator. And I believe strongly that if you have a problem with the government, the in-house lawyer ought to be leading the team. A lot of law firms want to have the principle contact with the government and will actually discourage you and treat you like a prop, saying there’s a time to “roll you out.” Well, I don’t like to be rolled out; I like to run the interaction.

Q: What advice do you have for young lawyers looking to rise up to senior-level positions?

Number one, you can’t allow yourself to be pigeonholed as, say, an employment law specialist in California. You have to challenge yourself to take on some challenges that don’t quite fit in with your core strengths. Second, get involved with and volunteer for enterprise-like projects. For instance, if a company is setting up a preferred firm program, you need a committee to run it. Even if you’re a lawyer on a single business team, volunteer to be on that committee. You’ll be exposed to other people in the company, you’ll be exposed to other lawyers, and you’ll show that you can work outside your comfort zone. Last, you have to let your boss know that you want new opportunities. You can’t suffer in silence. Be open with your boss and say, “One day I’d like to be general counsel myself, what are the gaps in my resume I need to fill in to make that job?”

Q: A lot of lawyers are moving towards that specialization. Why do you recommend not becoming pigeonholed?

All of the pressure in law firms now is to specialize; if you’re a generalist, how do you market yourself? But that is not the way to become a general counsel, because general counsel are the ultimate generalists. They have to do lots of things in a day that could be completely different from each other. Just today, I’ve been dealing with a personnel issue in Europe, hiring a law firm to work on a potential deal, and putting together an orientation book for a new board member. You have to let go of your desire to be an expert in everything, but rather know enough about a number of things to be able to apply judgment to them.