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Kristin Walinski is senior corporate counsel for Circuit City Stores, headquartered in Richmond, Va.
Can you tell us a little bit about the company? We’re best known as a consumer electronics retailer, but recently we’ve branched out into providing customers with great service even outside our store environment. For example, we offer professional installation and repair service through Firedog. Firedog aims to make the rapidly advancing world of consumer technology easy for our consumers. We also offer services to homeowners planning their technology needs from soup to nuts, whether it involves a large-screen television, security system, or a centralized vacuum system.
Any other news? We’ve been unveiling our new concept called “the City,” which has a new look and interactive layout. We’re also employing this concept in our move to the Puerto Rico market, where we’ll be opening two stores in January. It’s a huge opportunity for our business. We’re going through the hiring process now, and I’ve been very involved in planning that effort. It’s a lot of work to learn new laws and figure out how to assimilate into the community and business culture, but I think we’re doing a great job.
Has the economic slowdown affected Circuit City? Like all retailers, we definitely are affected. Our products are luxury items, and in a time of economic downturn, consumers spend less on luxuries. It’s also been a challenging time for us, as well, in the face of competition from discount retailers. We’re looking at it as an opportunity to innovate and differentiate.
Can you tell us about the law department? Our general counsel is Reggie Hedgebeth. Currently, we have about 15 lawyers in various departments. I’m part of the three-lawyer labor and employment team, and then there’s litigation, commercial, real estate, compliance, securities, and benefits.
What particular work do you do? I handle a variety of employment work — whatever comes across my desk. No day is like any other, and you never know what the next phone call from our field HR organization will bring. My HR clients call constantly with concerns relating to our inventive employees. Now that we’re in November, we’re in our busiest time of the year. We start our seasonal hiring in October, and we typically have a work force of approximately 55,000 employees during the holidays. With the additional work force, we face additional employment-related concerns. In addition to counseling HR, I handle a variety of attorney demand letters, agency matters, and arbitration. Our employees sign a dispute resolution agreement at hire, so we have very little litigation, except in California.
Can you explain the arbitration program? All Circuit City associates are part of the company’s dispute resolution program. We find the program to be an efficient way to resolve disputes for both the employee and the company. It’s faster than court proceedings, and it’s certainly more accessible, because employees aren’t dealing with the formality of the courtroom.
What are the biggest challenges of the job? Probably the biggest challenge is finding creative ways to meet business needs while minimizing legal risk. Keeping our clients educated so they in turn can educate their clients is key, and that becomes difficult in retail when you have very high employee turnover at the store level. Making sure our store managers and HR clients stay on top of the law is challenging, especially because we do business in most states. Each state has a nuanced approach to the law, so we have to be masters of the law everywhere all at once. With the law changing as rapidly as it does, it’s a constant struggle to learn about the law ourselves as well as to maintain a high level of education in the company.
What are the most enjoyable elements of the job? Two things stand out as the most enjoyable: working with our HR clients and the opportunity to innovate. Our field HR managers have an amazing sixth sense in sniffing out problems. Since they are responsible for so many locations, they are stretched thin, but they maintain a positive outlook and do a very good job of staying on top of problems and prevent a lot of issues from turning into litigation. They are great partners and love to call and bounce ideas off me. I learn a lot from working with them. It’s also exciting to be a part of the company’s move into the Puerto Rico market. It’s a great opportunity to be on the crest of the wave rather than picking up the pieces after the wave has crashed. Learning about the law and culture, implementing processes correctly on the front end, and troubleshooting potential problems before they arise is a good change of pace from the firefighting most attorneys do daily.
What’s your background? I’ve been at Circuit City for almost five years. Before that I was with McGuireWoods in its labor and employment department for 3 years, and that was my first job out of law school. I studied labor and employment law in law school at the University of Pennsylvania, and I guess I got pigeonholed early on. It’s a great area of law because it’s so dynamic and people-oriented. No two cases are ever alike, even though the law may be the same.
Are you from Richmond? Yes, I grew up just outside of the city in Hanover County in a town without stoplights. I’m an only child, and my parents are still here, so aside from college and law school, I’ve never spent much time outside Richmond. It’s a great town and very livable.
What outside firms does Circuit City use? We have, geographically, our go-to firm in each area. Some are boutique firms, and some are larger firms.
What do you do outside the office? You recently won the community service award from the Washington Metropolitan Area Corporate Counsel Association. Most of my non-sleeping time is spent giving back to the community. I teach Lawyering Skills, a course about legal writing, to first-year students at the University of Richmond Law School, and I spend a good part of my “free time” teaching high school students about the law. Other than that, I try to find time to train for marathons, and this year, I’m planning my wedding. My high school teaching involves teaching practical law skills as well as coaching a mock trial team that attends several competitions through the Law Explorers program. I coach the competition team about 200 hours for at least three months in the spring. I started working in the program at McGuireWoods. In recent years, we’ve attended the national competition six times and won it twice, placed second once, and placed third once. More important than the awards, though, is the effect the program has on the students. Some are now attending law school, but most are excelling in school regardless of discipline and have improved their public speaking skills and confidence. The Exploring program draws students from age 13 to 20 from all schools in the area. There are Exploring posts nationwide and cover careers such as law enforcement to engineering to nursing. This year, I’ve semi-retired from it, though I plan to continue to coach my current students. Instead, I’m focusing on developing an idea for another nonprofit to encourage civic education in high school. Many students don’t focus on social sciences in school, and it’s important to give students an early foundation about their civic responsibilities. Even if their career aspirations don’t involve the law, it’s important for them to understand the political process, to know about their rights as an employee, and to learn about other practical aspects of the law that will impact their lives as a private citizen. Many adults don’t know the law, and it’s my mission to change that, at least in the Richmond area.
Do you have time to read? I have time to think about reading. I have about 15 books on my night stand that I want to read. I’m trying to read the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss. I always look for fresh approaches to encourage my students to appreciate grammar and punctuation as much as I do.

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