Understanding the conflicts and pressures employees face in balancing family life with a demanding career comes easier to those who have been down that road, as has Hyatt Hotels Corp. general counsel Rena Hozore Reiss.

Although her children are now grown, Reiss’ experience as a working mother helped shape how she runs the 57-person law department, which is responsible for all aspects of Hyatt’s legal needs, from protecting the hotel giant’s trademarks and corporate compliance to nailing down franchise agreements and managing litigation.

"I understand some of the difficulties when people wonder, ‘Do I really want to put my name forward for something [an assignment or promotion] at this point in my life?’ " said Reiss, who has headed the company’s legal department since 2010. "I’m able to say, ‘In complete honesty, if you pull your name out of the running for something now, it’s not a bad reflection on you. It just might not be the right time. When another opportunity comes up, we’ll look at you again.’ "

That supportive and flexible approach has helped Hyatt maintain an unusually diverse stable of attorneys, of which women comprise 17 of the 28 attorneys in the department. That diversity extends beyond the department’s downtown Chicago headquarters to its four international offices, including Hong Kong and Beijing. The real estate transactions group, Reiss noted, boasts a single man.

"I don’t know that I’ve worked with any male attorneys there," said Crowell & Moring partner Aryeh Portnoy, who handles litigation and arbitrations for Hyatt. "They are definitely different in that way. It’s refreshing, frankly, that they reflect that level of diversity. It’s obviously important to them. And it doesn’t go unnoticed."

It’s not that Hyatt intentionally set out to recruit women, Reiss said, but rather that the environment has been a particularly easy sell to them — although men benefit from a healthy work/life balance as well. "Life is a whole bundle of things, not just a job," Reiss said.

She gives attorneys the option to work remotely when appropriate, she said, and Hyatt maintains a summer-hours program that allows employees to adjust their work hours in order to arrange for Fridays off or to work a half-day periodically. These initiatives have proven popular with everyone.

"It’s great, because it means people can get away for a long weekend, spend more time with their families or just have some extra downtime," Reiss said. "I firmly believe that if an employer is willing to work with team members to make life a littler easier, people will bend over backward for you."

Boosting the racial diversity among the department’s 19-attorney Chicago office has been a tougher nut to crack, although it does include two Latinas. Recruiting African-American attorneys has proven particularly tough, given the stiff competition faced by law firms willing to pay two or three times as much, Reiss said.

Job candidates from all walks of life are often surprised to learn that working as Hyatt lawyers is no in-house cake walk.

"We’ve had people say, ‘Wow, you work pretty hard,’ " Reiss said. "This is not a laid-back, nine-to-five job. I would put my folks up against the best firm lawyers both in terms of how hard they are working and the caliber of work they do."

Although individual Hyatt attorneys maintain specializations including intellectual property or real estate, they are expected to handle a variety of legal areas. That gives the department more flexibility and helps open up opportunities for Hyatt attorneys, Reiss said.

Being in the hospitality business has guided the way Hyatt’s attorneys approach each other and other departments within the company, which they view as their clients. "If you like collaboration, you will find yourself comfortable here," Reiss said. "We’re not a bunch of yellers and screamers."

That approach extends to outside counsel as well.

"There is kind of a team mentality between inside and outside, rather than feeling like you are hired out to solve a problem," Portnoy said. "The practice of law can bog you down, but it feels different when you feel like you are part of the team. It makes it more fun to work with them, and it helps you understand their business."

The legal department is in the process of formalizing a pro bono program under which it will work with outside counsel to offer legal services to nonprofit organizations. Its existing charitable efforts have focused more on fund-raising for various organizations, including a home for disadvantaged children and a shelter for women and children. — Karen Sloan

 

Hyatt Hotels Corp., a publicly traded hospitality company
Headquarters: Chicago
Industry: Hospitality
Number of lawyers in the Chicago area: 19
Number of lawyers in the U.S.: 19
Number of lawyers worldwide: 28
General counsel: Rena Hozore Reiss
KEYS TO SUCCESS

"You have to know when to say no, but you can’t say no to people all the time. You need to be creative and solution-oriented instead of just a naysayer. Otherwise, people will stop coming to you and they’ll do what they want anyway."

"It’s been really important to work in an industry I have a passion for, even though I’m not the one in the hotels. I have incredible admiration for what they do every day, and we want people in the legal department to feel like they are contributing to the success of those people and the business."

"One of the keys is to have a cohesive department where people respect each other and enjoy working with each other."

"This is not a laid-back, nine-to-five job. I would put my folks up against the best firm lawyers both in terms of how hard they are working and the caliber of work they do."

— Rena Hozore Reiss, general counsel