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Rhonda VanLowe is legal counsel for Rolls-Royce North America, based in Chantilly, Va. Although most people think “cars” when they think of Rolls-Royce, today the company concentrates on gas turbine engines.
Can you tell us about Rolls-Royce North America? Well, the size and scope of our business in North America is often a surprise to folks. First, we are a corporate headquarters located in Chantilly, Virginia. Our ultimate parent is Rolls-Royce PLC. That said, we have about 7,300 employees in North America; 5,300 in the U.S. We generate $3.9 billion in annual sales in North America. And we manufacture engines at our site in Indianapolis, Indiana. Chantilly is also the headquarters for the corporate and regional aircraft business. Portions of our marine and energy businesses are also located in North America. Our businesses are located throughout the U.S. and Canada. Our company has a 100-year history, and our presence in North America dates back to 1906, when the founders, Rolls and Royce, opened an office in New York. And just in case you are wondering, the cars are part of our legacy but not our core business today. We see ourselves as a leading provider of power systems for civil aerospace, defense aerospace, marine, and energy.
Can you tell us a bit about the legal department? We have 16 lawyers scattered throughout North America. All the lawyers report to Tom Dale, general counsel. Some of our attorneys are located with the businesses — our lawyer in Walpole, Massachusetts, for example, is located in the marine business. There are four lawyers, including Tom, located at the Chantilly office and another group located in Indianapolis. We have two lawyers in Canada. Our group is organized in teams, two sets of teams: customer teams and specialist practice teams. For example, I’m the leader for the customer team supporting civil aerospace in North America, which includes the corporate and regional business. I am also the team leader for the specialist practice group that includes finance, bankruptcy, tax, treasury, and securities laws. While I’m a leader of these teams, I’m also a member of other specialist teams — the corporate governance team is an example. Tom is the team leader. I’m a team member. I think our structure is somewhat different. But I believe that Tom wants to foster communication and collaboration within the group. The team approach helps.
What’s your role in the organization? I was hired primarily to support the sales-finance and treasury groups, since I had a background in aircraft finance. But since then, I have taken on a number of different roles and varied assignments as the business has changed. For example, I help with the PAC. These issues have, at times, forced me out of my comfort zone. I am much more of a transactional lawyer. But you become a real generalist as in-house counsel. I find that the diversity and complexity of issues is what I do like about being in-house — I have my specialties, but I am more like a jack of many trades, and a master of none! And that’s where outside counsel comes in. By aligning ourselves with outside counsel who are subject-matter experts, we are able to provide the businesses with a full complement of legal services. I really like being part of a business. We make big engines — it’s really nice to see — and it’s really kind of amazing to see our engines on the assembly line. Our engines are complex and sophisticated. And there are a lot of complex, sophisticated issues involved to take the product to market — that’s when it’s fun being an in-house counsel. You get to see where your advice is going and the consequences of your advice. And you really have to live with the advice that you give. You have to take a very practical, pragmatic view of an issue. You are trying to make the business work, so you really cannot just offer theoretical advice; it’s got to be useful advice that helps to solve a problem.
What are the legal issues on your desk? What I love is being a deal lawyer, and I’m very excited when I have a deal on my plate, and I do now. I’m also involved in several bankruptcy matters. This year, I have also been involved in work on our precedent contracts. And there are always just the day-to-day commercial issues. On the administrative side, we have also implemented an e-billing system, and I have been involved in that effort.
What’s your background? I was a Cornell undergrad many years ago, and I went to Georgetown for law school. I was an older law student — in my 30s. I married and had my children after undergraduate school. When I returned to the work force, I worked in corporate banking and developed a finance background. Following through with my original vision, I went back to law school in the evening division. Well, I did not really follow my original vision — I would have been a litigator or more policy-oriented. Pragmatism prevailed, and I became a business lawyer. I was in private practice for about nine years. I grew up as a lawyer at Ginsburg, Feldman & Bress, where I became a shareholder. I also did a stint at Swidler & Berlin. Part of my work at Ginsburg involved aircraft-finance work. My first in-house position was with Reebok International. I went from athletic shoes to aircraft engines with my position at Rolls-Royce. I have almost eight years with Rolls-Royce.
What outside firms do you use? I don’t want to get into specifics. We use a number of firms that are selected based on expertise and geography.
Any other activities for you outside the office? My kids are launched now, and I feel pretty lucky for that. I don’t have to spend the homework or soccer time. Those days are done. My big thing now is community service, so I try very hard to contribute on a professional level as well as in the community. I’m on the board of WMACCA [the Washington Metropolitan Area Corporate Counsel Association]. It’s my way of making a contribution on a professional level. WMACCA is a great organization, and the group has been successful in elevating the profile of in-house counsel. Also, over the years, I’ve done a fair amount of mentoring at the Washington College of Law at American University, which is a very inviting environment. I enjoy working with students and working with them on their legal writing. I get a lot of calls for career advice and just plain support. The work keeps me connected to the profession in a different way. But my big passion is the Northern Virginia Therapeutic Riding Program. I am the chair of the board of governors. We teach folks with disabilities how to ride horses, and it’s been just a magical thing for me to be involved in the program. The relationship that develops between a horse and a child can make a world of difference in a child’s life.
How did you learn about this group? Serendipity! I was having dinner with a person involved with the program. She described the work and I said that it seemed really interesting. I love animals and I love kids. At the time, I was looking for a community service thing. I went out and did a work day. And the next thing I knew, I was side-walking on Saturday mornings. Side-walking is like spotting in gymnastics — you’re there if the rider has balance issues or needs some type of support. We have riders who are fully assisted and some who ride independently. It’s amazing. We have a visually impaired rider who canters by herself. When I see her, I say, I wish I could canter like that! We also want to work on a program for returning veterans. That’s something we’d really like to do.

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