Even before he gained cult status as the general counsel of General Electric Company, Benjamin Heineman, Jr., already had one hell of a career. A Rhodes Scholar, Heineman had served as clerk to U.S. Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart and assistant secretary to the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He had also been a public interest lawyer. In 1987 GE CEO Jack Welch hand-plucked Heineman from Sidley & Austin (now Sidley Austin Brown & Wood), where he was managing partner.
“I met Welch in New York, and he offered me the job on the spot,” remembers Heineman. “I told him, ‘I’m not a corporate lawyer’-I was doing constitutional law-and Welch said, ‘I don’t give a damn about that.’ “
Ultimately, blind faith guided both men: “He didn’t quite know what he wanted, and I didn’t have a clue about the job,” sums up Heineman. “But I thought I could go there and figure it out.”
That chutzpah led to a spectacular 17-year reign at GE in which Heineman redefined the role of company lawyer. He recruited partners from big firms to head GE’s legal divisions, transforming those posts from refuges for passed-over partners into coveted destinations.
Heineman also changed the power relationship between law firms and corporations: Firms no longer dictate terms of their services; instead, GE, using its clout and size, has forced firms to compete for work. Under his watch, lawyers have become a high-priced commodity.
Heineman is more than the über-company man. A lifelong Democrat in a company with deep Republican ties, Heineman founded the Pro Bono Partnership in 1987, an organization that pairs corporate lawyers with community-based nonprofit groups. “I don’t accept the corporate stereotype” that business and social justice must always conflict, says Heineman. “I’d like to think we have a culture of integrity.”
Heineman is fond of calling himself a “child of the sixties.” He notes, “I started out as a public interest lawyer representing the mentally ill,” referring to his stint with the Center for Law and Social Policy after graduating from Yale Law School.
Now senior vice president for law and public affairs and secretary at GE (he left the GC spot last year), Heineman, 61, doesn’t want to talk about his legacy: “I’m not prepared to write my obituary. This is phase five. I have many more phases to go.”
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