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In talking to Jeffrey Kindler, it becomes plain that he’s gotten to where he is partly because of a drive to always seek the next challenge, and also because of his choice of role models: U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan and General Electric general counsel Ben Heineman. Over dinner, Kindler talked about the most important lesson he learned from the justice and the heady atmosphere he found in GE’s legal department. On working with Justice Brennan: Of all the people I’ve worked for, Justice Brennan was the person who made me understand the importance of leading by your own sense of values. I’ve worked for people over the years, both before and after him, who sometimes had a disconnect between what they expected of their people and the way they acted themselves. But Brennan never asked anything of us that he didn’t do himself, even more. The values that he articulated in his opinions, he lived by every day. Brennan was every bit as great a human being as he was a judge. That isn’t true of all judges. You know, he was a great liberal, humanist, people-oriented justice. A fabulous justice, in terms of his jurisprudence. But he actually lived that in his own life, the way he dealt with people. He was just the warmest, most engaging guy. On making the switch from being a partner at Williams & Connolly to working at GE: One of my mentors at the firm, a senior partner there who had done a lot of work for General Electric, called me in one day and said that GE was looking for a young litigator for their litigation department in-house. Here are the specifications: This many years out of law school, this, this. It described me. It was me. But he also said, you don’t want to do this — because why would you ever want to go in-house? My mentor was a close friend of [GE] general counsel Ben Heineman, who had been an associate at Williams & Connolly. So he said, “I feel obligated to tell you about it. But you don’t want to do this.” But I said, “Well, I might want to think about that.” What motivated me was what I had been reading in The American Lawyer magazine and in Legal Times. The American Lawyer had a cover story about Heineman, about how he was revolutionizing the practice of in-house law. One of the ways he was doing it was by bringing in high-caliber senior lawyers from private firms and paying them well. After that article appeared, every time I picked up Legal Times in 1988 and 1989 it seemed like some really high-powered, well-known lawyer was going to GE. Phil Lacovara, Jay Latman, Ted Baum. This was very interesting to me because, as my wife reminds me, some six or seven months before this conversation with my law firm mentor, I had been going through post-partner depression. You spend so many years wanting to become a partner. Then you become a partner. And you say, “Now what?” How Kindler ended up heading litigation for GE: Something very interesting and exciting was going on there. GE is a great company. And Heineman is a great lawyer; he’d attracted great lawyers. I go to Connecticut to interview. And I love the people. I love the work. I have so much admiration for Ben Heineman, and for Jack Welch [GE's CEO]. So I said to myself, “I’ll give this a try.” My thinking was, “If I don’t like it, I can always go back to Williams & Connolly. They’ll take me back.” I can’t tell you how many of my partners at Williams & Connolly thought I had lost my mind. They all thought I was crazy. Five years later, when I left this position, several of them applied for the job. I was lucky. I was in the right place at the right time. And actually, I had an even luckier break than that: When I was interviewing for the job, the head of litigation at GE was Phil Lacovara, a great lawyer. He was a Watergate counsel — argued the Nixon tapes case. One of the things that attracted me to GE was going to work for him. But just before I accepted the job, he called and said, “I have some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that I’m leaving; I’ve just been made general counsel at Morgan Stanley.” “What’s the good news?” I asked. And he said: “I’ve told Ben he should give you the job.” So I went to work at GE as kind of the deputy head of litigation. For about nine months, we conducted a search for Phil’s successor. And everybody I interviewed, I thought there was some issue with. Finally, I went to Heineman, and I said, “Why don’t you just give me the job? I’m a lot cheaper than these guys.” And he did. And that was my big break.

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