NiSource Inc. provides natural gas to more than 3 million customers from Texas through the Midwest and into New England, and supplies electricity to another 455,000 in its home state of Indiana. It is heavily invested in developing the Marcellus Shale natural gas region, and has the capacity to store more than 600 billion cubic feet of natural gas. The company has approximately 8,000 employees and has headquarters in Merrillville, Ind. Last year’s revenues of $6 billion earned for it the No. 362 slot on the Fortune 500.
LEGAL TEAM AND OUTSIDE COUNSEL
General counsel Carrie Hightman’s department comprises “65-ish” employees, she said, including 39 lawyers besides herself. She has instituted a “core provider” program, relying on a dozen key outside firms plus additional providers to address specialty needs. Among the core group are McGuireWoods (labor/employment, regional litigation); Schiff Hardin of Chicago (environment, corporate, securities); Reed Smith (regional litigation, commercial); Columbus, Ohio’s Porter Wright Morris & Arthur (employee benefits); Locke Lord (midstream mineral rights, natural gas); Chicago’s Winston & Strawn (federal matters, energy); and Atlanta’s Troutman Sanders (federal regulatory). Hightman deals with state regulatory counsel wherever NiSource operates.
Day-to-day matters tend to stay inside, as does routine corporate and securities work. Hightman tends to go outside for litigation, major rate cases and big corporate matters. She uses alternative billing arrangements “to the extent possible,” she said. “I try to be creative and move away from hourly [rates]. However, you can only get so creative, given that alternatives are tied to hourly in some way.”
Once a regulatory specialist, Hightman now is more of a generalist. Her responsibilities include all legal work, including compliance with all regulatory, environmental, health and safety regulations. She serves on NiSource’s senior management team and supports the board of directors. A typical workday will feature back-to-back meetings or conference calls, she said.
Hightman views her responsibilities as the culmination of everything she has done in her career. She has, she said, practiced on every side of the utility field — as a regulatory attorney; on the consumer side; representing companies; and on the business end. As a member of NiSource’s executive team, Hightman focuses on setting strategy and managing, no longer simply billing out time. She has, she said, navigated “the full circle” in her field.
She reports to president and chief executive officer Robert Skaggs.
The team deals with general intellectual property protection, particularly regarding company patents. It provides advice about insurance and corporate advertising; participates in union negotiations, following the lead of NiSource’s large human resources department; and keeps records related to the immigration status of employees. Hightman travels “all over” to meet with NiSource’s lawyers, and attends meetings, including those of the Edison Electric Institute, the American Gas Association and the American Bar Association’s Section of Public Utility, Communications and Transportation Law (she is vice chair of the telecommunications committee).
Hightman and her company have cleaned up several legacy legal problems, some of them 25 years in the making. Shortly before she joined the company in 2007, it lost a $404 million judgment involving royalties owed to the owners of land leased for a pipeline and storage facilities. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals declined the appeal, so “a fresh assessment and new approach was clearly warranted,” Hightman said. She hired Maureen Mahoney of Latham & Watkins to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it settled favorably following the cert pleadings.
Regulatory oversight is old hat at NiSource, Hightman said — the energy industry has long been one of the country’s most regulated sectors. Among the rulemakers to which it answers are the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and various state and federal environmental watchdogs. The movement and storage of natural gas, pipeline safety and various aspects of the electricity business all draw oversight.
NiSource provides retail service to customers in seven states and deals with regulators in each. Part of the company’s business strategy is to invest in infrastructure (approximately $1 billion annually). It requires approval from state regulators to recover those investments in the form of rate adjustments. “We have come a long way in creating a good collaborative approach to regulatory issues,” Hightman said.
Finally, the department oversees compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and Dodd-Frank Act.
One year ago, as the most senior female executive of the company, Hightman rolled out “Building the Next Gen,” a leadership program for women. A summit was staged for the company’s top 135 women, and three regional meetings for the next 200 in terms of seniority. The goals were to retain, promote and hire women.
Hightman is instituting a department-wide pro bono/community involvement program. She asked individuals in each office to suggest initiatives that would include everyone — not just attorneys — and engage employees in multiple states.
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Before joining NiSource, Hightman served as president of AT&T Illinois (formally, the Illinois Bell Telephone Co.). From 1986 to 2001, she worked at Schiff Hardin, where she eventually led the energy, telecommunications and public utilities practice. Hightman began her career in 1983 as staff counsel for the Florida Public Service Commission, later representing consumers before that panel as associate counsel in the Florida Office of Public Counsel. Besides her work at the American Bar Association, she chairs the Illinois Board of Higher Education and the Illinois State University Retirement System Board, and is involved in a range of professional and civic groups.
Chicago native Hightman and her husband, Harry, have two children: Brian, 27, and Cassie, 23. She is an enthusiastic oenophile who loves collecting vintage wines. She graduated in 1979 from the University of Illinois and earned her J.D. in 1982 from Florida State University College of Law. She offered this advice: “You need to be well organized and have the right people in the right places. Listen to your clients and be a good business partner, not just a lawyer.”
LAST BOOK AND MOVIE
The Obamas, by Jodi Kantor, and The Clinton Years.