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Wanji Walcott started her legal career differently than most—right after law school, she immediately went in-house, working at Lockheed Martin IMS Corp., a Lockheed subsidiary. This alternative path served her well, allowing her to meet her then-boss, Lockheed IMS general counsel Robert Downing, who recognized her potential. Two years into the job, Downing told Walcott she could be GC one day, too.

“I thought he meant of the subsidiary and he said: No, no, no. You could be general counsel of Lockheed Martin. You have something.” Walcott remembered.

Walcott held onto that, she said, and this year, she made her ambition to run a legal department at a big name company a reality. She is now the general counsel to PayPal Inc., the massive San Jose-based online payments company that recorded $10.84 billion in revenue in 2016 and $1.4 billion in net income.

Getting to PayPal took a little work, though, Walcott said. Trained for many years as a generalist, Walcott learned from Meridian Legal Search recruiter Jane Karesh that she needed to specialize her legal skill set if she wanted to become a GC. Karesh helped quite a lot, Walcott said, pushing her in the right direction a few years before the dot-com era boomed and Silicon Valley reinvented itself once again as a technology hub. 

“Jane said: You’re a technology lawyer. I said, alright,” Walcott recalled.

Walcott joined law firm Shaw Pittman (known today as Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman) in 1999 and honed her technology transaction skills, helping brick-and-mortar businesses set their shops up online. She moved in-house to American Express in 2002 and, just a few years later, was running the in-house technology law group. In 2007, she guided American Express in launching an app for Apple’s latest breakout product: the first iPhone.

Walcott joined PayPal in 2015 as the vice president of legal product. In her current role, she handles day-to-day global legal work for a department of about 165 professionals, including roughly 150 attorneys spread throughout the U.S., Europe, Asia, Latin America and Canada.

Much like her legal department as a whole, Walcott’s daily focus is split about 50-50 between domestic and international issues. She said she often spends time learning about upcoming regulation and also helping the company explore potential expansions into new jurisdictions. That means Walcott also needs to understand the company’s multiple payment services and products so she can best determine how to roll them out according to local rules and laws. Walcott also ensures that the company is staying in touch with regulators, keeping them informed about how online payments are changing.

Walcott is also one of many top in-house attorneys who have signed up to participate in the GC Thought Leaders Experiment with general counsel-led organization AdvanceLaw. The project attempts to quantify what behaviors make for better relationships between in-house and outside counsel. For the project, Walcott has designated a few in-house attorneys from PayPal in the U.S., Europe, Australia, Asia, Latin America and Canada to fill out and send evaluation surveys about recent legal matters.

Walcott has also established a name for herself as an advocate for pro bono: She set up PayPal’s pro bono program in 2016, launching an effort across at least seven countries that included in-house lawyers from offices worldwide. The in-house lawyers who participate in the program have volunteered their legal expertise to refugees and immigrant children in the United States. Later this year, several attorneys will focus on helping people with criminal records get back on their feet.

Walcott’s advocacy continues beyond pro bono work. With the help of her legal department and her boss, Chief Business Affairs and Legal Officer Louise Pentland, Walcott has pushed for increased racial and gender diversity on PayPal’s outside counsel teams.

“My view on this is that, I’m at the stage in my life, as an in-house counsel, I’m the person and part of a group of persons who are going to be able to impact diversity and inclusion in the legal industry,” Walcott said. “One thing we will do, which has helped boost the number of diverse lawyers who work for us, is, when we are [finding] support for a new matter, we will say openly and proactively, ‘Diversity and inclusion is important to us. We hope is it important to you, too.’”

Walcott said that upfront communication has helped Paypal’s outside legal teams become more diverse.

Fighting for others—and herself—has always been a part of Walcott’s drive, she said. Even in eighth grade, Walcott said she thought being a lawyer was the best way to be an advocate, and she even said so in her yearbook that year.

“Advocacy is always something that’s been of great interest,” Walcott said. “That was my North star.”

Contact David Ruiz at druiz@alm.com. On Twitter: @davidalruiz

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