X

Thank you for sharing!

Your article was successfully shared with the contacts you provided.
Joe Harness is a big-city lawyer who serves the residents of the boonies from the middle of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. As general counsel of Walco International Inc., a Grapevine, Texas, company that distributes animal health care products to rural areas, he helps ensure that pigs get fed and cattle take their medication, no matter how far from town they live. A job geared toward farm animals might seem like a stretch for an attorney who grew up in the Dallas area knowing little about agriculture and livestock, but it’s a perfect fit for Harness, who relishes being the top lawyer at a corporation. When he received his J.D. in December 1995 from Texas Tech School of Law in Lubbock, Harness looked for a way to put his economics degree and his legal knowledge to work. He did what he describes as odds and ends, including work with a personal-injury attorney and later with a real estate lawyer, while he searched for the right job for him in the legal field. He decided that a position combining the legal and business worlds would suit him and soon found his niche with in-house work. He started applying at corporations, and in 1997, a little more than a year after graduating, Harness landed a job as assistant general counsel at Jani-King, a commercial cleaning franchise company in Dallas. A year later, he moved to Walco, where, at age 31, he’s already moved up to the top legal slot. “I was in the right place at the right time,” Harness says. Walco, founded in 1954 in California, provides health products and services for horses, cattle, poultry and swine, among other animals. It makes $400 million in sales annually. Through third-party vendors, the company distributes products such as feed additives; pharmaceuticals; syringes; identification items, including ear tags and microchips; equipment to apply and read the IDs; stock prods; and bug sprays. In addition, the company offers software programs to calculate the correct amount of additives for an animal and some programs to keep track of the medicine it takes. Most of the products are geared to farm animals, but friend animals — aka pets — could become a bigger part of the business as Walco expands its division of veterinarian products for pets. The company employs about 850 workers, about 10 percent at the Grapevine headquarters, where it moved five years ago. The rest of the employees work at 53 distribution centers located around the country in places designated extreme rural areas by the U.S. Postal Service. A year after he was hired in 1998, the executive in charge of the company’s legal, regulatory, human resources and business development functions departed. Harness was promoted to GC and took the reins of the legal and regulatory part of the job. He also serves as Walco’s secretary. Jim Robison, Walco CEO and president, says he picked Harness for the job because of his skill in corporate legal matters. “He had done a lot of work in the contracts area,” Robison says. “We felt he was a good fit.” In addition, he says, Harness is a valued member of the management team, helping with human resources matters and advising on business deals. “He really is a true counselor to all the managers,” Robison says. Mark Gray, Walco vice president of operations, says he frequently consults with Harness, discussing matters such as regulatory requirements connected to pharmaceutical sales, leases for the distribution centers and purchasing of trucks and other equipment. “We’re working with Joe every day,” he says. “Joe keeps us in line.” Harness says taking part on the business side makes him better on the legal side. “I have to be involved in the big picture,” he says. “Otherwise, my contractual reviews would be meaningless.” PRACTICAL APPROACH Harness runs a one-man legal department and works out of the Grapevine office. Walco is just a few minutes from DFW Airport but boasts a small-town, rural feel, the perfect location for a company whose clients are mainly ranchers. He arrives at about 8 o’clock each morning after a short commute from Keller, where he lives with his wife, two daughters, a dog and a cat. There’s no average day for him as he tackles questions and projects as they arise. “I come to work with a set of priorities, but that quickly gets thrown out the window,” he says. Harness spends much of his time reviewing contracts with the approximately 500 vendors that provide products for animals (some of them giants such as Pfizer Inc.) and the leasing agreements for distribution centers, which are vital links for a company that must be able to get its products to ranchers in isolated areas. As secretary, Harness handles general corporate work, including researching antitrust and other legal issues for management. He assists the human resources department and fulfills corporate regulatory requirements. He makes sure that Walco complies with all the rules to be licensed as a drug wholesaler in states where it operates. And he steers litigation involving the company and manages outside counsel. The lion’s share of litigation stems from human resource types of disputes, such as age discrimination claims, Harness says. Occasionally, the company is pulled into product liability claims in its capacity as a distributor or gets into commercial litigation because of a contract dispute, he says. For outside help, Harness turns to Ropes & Gray in Boston; McGuireWoods in Richmond, Va.; and the Dallas office of Andrews & Kurth, where partner Robert Weathersby and associate Linda Stahl often handle Walco work. The outside lawyers cite Harness’ business savvy, legal skill and friendly manner. “I think he’s a good people person,” John W. Burke III, a partner in McGuireWoods who does intellectual property litigation for Walco, says. “I’ve seen him work with lawyers, I’ve seen him with farmers out in the field, I’ve seen him work with people in the office. On top of that, he’s a good attorney.” Harness also has a practical approach to doing business and works with his outside lawyers to keep legal costs down, Burke says. Weathersby says that Harness’ business expertise makes him perfect for the job. “He’s a litigator with business acumen,” says Weathersby, who does commercial litigation for Walco. “That’s so much better than the other way around. If you’re trained as a business lawyer, it’s harder to understand why things happen. He was trained as a litigator, but he has a great business head on his shoulders. That’s why I think Joe is head and shoulders above a lot of others.” Harness also has a talent for managing people, Weathersby adds. “A general counsel to me can either be too hands-on and kind of get in the way or nonexistent,” he says. “Joe walks the fine line. He’s involved, he makes decisions, and he’s smart.”

Want to continue reading?
Become a Free ALM Digital Reader.

Benefits of a Digital Membership:

  • Free access to 1 article* every 30 days
  • Access to the entire ALM network of websites
  • Unlimited access to the ALM suite of newsletters
  • Build custom alerts on any search topic of your choosing
  • Search by a wide range of topics

*May exclude premium content
Already have an account?

 
 

ALM Legal Publication Newsletters

Sign Up Today and Never Miss Another Story.

As part of your digital membership, you can sign up for an unlimited number of a wide range of complimentary newsletters. Visit your My Account page to make your selections. Get the timely legal news and critical analysis you cannot afford to miss. Tailored just for you. In your inbox. Every day.

Copyright © 2021 ALM Media Properties, LLC. All Rights Reserved.