Multimillion-dollar deals and labor negotiations are serious business, but Dawnn Repp and her legal team at Freeman find a way to stay focused on the big picture.
Repp, senior vice president, general counsel for the Dallas-based company, says she tries hard to be a strategic partner instead of a lawyer, to provide advice on whatever faces the company, “whether it’s risk or things that we should be doing, corporate governance issues.”
Repp describes Freeman as a provider of face-to-face marketing services. It produces trade shows, conventions and corporate events for clients, offering them whatever services they need to make their events happen, such as configuring booth layout, laying carpet and bringing in freight. Freeman also offers audio-visual and graphic-design services, among others.
Repp says a Freeman subsidiary, provides stage rigging — the support equipment from which lights and other hardware hang — for events such as a Bon Jovi tour and the Super Bowl halftime show.
Repp notes that trade-show and convention services are Freeman’s “backbone,” adding that serving as a strategic partner with clients involves “really trying to grow their business, as well as our own, through creative strategies and innovation.”
Freeman, which had $1.6 billion in revenue in fiscal year 2011, looks at a client’s ultimate strategy and helps the client reach that goal, Repp says. “[W]e try to match and really enhance that strategy throughout the whole event, whatever that event might be.”
Repp’s relationship with Freeman goes way back. She grew up in Iowa, where her father worked as an insurance broker servicing the company. In the mid-1980s, Freeman moved its headquarters to Dallas, and her father moved to open a branch of his company’s business there to keep serving Freeman.
“I’ve known about Freeman pretty much my whole life,” Repp says. “My father thought the world of Freeman, and so I heard about all the great things that they were doing from a very early age.”
After graduating in 1994 from Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, she worked briefly as a California plaintiffs lawyer. Then, her father invited her to work with him, handling litigation management. She oversaw outside litigators; attended depositions, arbitrations and mediations; and handled cases through settlement.
She left when Freeman, at the time the brokerage’s largest claim client, decided to switch to another vendor. But she loved Freeman and wanted to keep working for the company, she says.
“I approached them and said, ‘You know, I’ve been reviewing contracts and doing some other stuff for you. I really think you have a need, and I think I can prove to you that it’s a cost-savings to hire me,’ ” Repp says.
The company had never had an in-house attorney and turned Repp down. So she started a solo practice, with Freeman as her only client.
“I worked from home and serviced them, and it was great,” Repp says. “I think I was able to prove very quickly . . . the value of having [an] in-house attorney that knows your business and can provide strategic advice [and] reduce their outside counsel [expense] probably 90 percent in the first couple of years.”
In 2005, Freeman hired her as a full-time employee serving as vice president, general counsel.
Adding Repp to the team has been good for Freeman, says President John F. O’Connell Jr.
“What I love about Dawnn is she is a true business partner,” says O’Connell, who has been with Freeman 24 years. “Sometimes, in all of our various corporate functions, they forget that we’re really here to serve the business field and the ones that are making it happen with the customers. Dawnn has never forgotten that.”
In addition to advising senior and other managers, Repp says she oversees the company’s labor and employment issues, mergers and acquisitions, contract negotiations and regulatory compliance, among other things. Advising the sales department is a priority, she says, because “that’s what drives our business. And since sales, typically, is our main priority throughout the day, we really try to have a very fast turnaround, because we know that they have clients who are waiting on them.”
She has two other lawyers in her legal department. Outside counsel handle litigation and Employee Retirement Income Security Act work, she says.
“The thing that we look for with outside counsel is counsel that, first of all, are real — I mean real people that you can develop a relationship with — but also counsel that are responsive with strategic advice,” Repp says. “They know that I am general counsel with a very lean staff that needs to get an answer now. I don’t have time for a big research memo; I need advice. And a lot of the time, these people that I hire outside are able to give their advice, based on their knowledge and experience, over the phone like that, and that’s what I need.”
Repp says she works closely with Art Lambert, a director in Kane Russell Coleman & Logan’s labor and employment section in Dallas. He can answer her questions but also help her see consequences.
“He’s able to take the advice a step further,” she says. “He knows our business. He knows what’s important to us. He’ll be able to really have some foresight into how his advice might impact other situations, which is invaluable.”
Repp adds that she wants outside counsel who will tell her the truth. “So many, I think, outside vendors and providers are so worried about not losing a client,” she says. “Art has no problem telling me, ‘You’re wrong, Dawnn. That’s not a good idea, and here’s why. Here’s a better idea.’ “
Lambert says Repp is a “practical lawyer” and he tries to give practical solutions, not just legal ones.
And he, too, eschews long memos.
“We’re of one mind on that,” Lambert says. “I don’t like writing them, and she doesn’t like getting them, so that’s one of the reasons we get along.”
Best Practices: Outside Counsel Must Keep Eyes on the Prize
Dawnn Repp, senior vice president, general counsel of Dallas-based Freeman, worked as outside counsel for the company before becoming its first in-house lawyer about seven years ago. But her history with the company goes back farther than that, having heard her father sing Freeman’s praises while he provided insurance services for it during the 1980s.
Texas Lawyer ‘s Thomas Phillips emailed Repp some questions about how she runs her legal department and works with outside counsel. Her answers are below, edited for length and style.
Texas Lawyer: What types of matters do you typically hire outside lawyers to handle, and why is it helpful having them in those cases?
Dawnn Repp: We hire outside counsel for all litigation and for truly specialized work such as matters involving ERISA. Since we run a very lean shop, we do not have the bandwidth or the experience in which to handle litigation, the majority of which falls under our insurance program. As for ERISA, it is such a specialized area that we feel the client is better served by outsourcing those issues.
TL: In a perfect world, what attributes or work habits would your outside counsel have?
Repp: First, they need to be experts in their fields, and next, they need to be able to develop a partnership with us so that it is a mutually beneficial relationship. Freeman, as a company, has an entrepreneurial spirit, and our culture reflects that. We choose the best employees, set expectations, train and then empower them to make good decisions that benefit the customer and the company. The same holds true for our outside counsel. We don’t have a lot of rigid litigation guidelines and billing arrangements, but we do expect that our partner lawyers will meet our expectations and use good judgment that matches with Freeman’s strategic goals.
TL: What types of matters do you typically handle yourself, and why?
Repp: Everything else! Freeman’s legal department handles a huge workload on a limited budget. Demonstrating our impact to the bottom line is critically important, and so we do most of our work in-house.
TL: Which skill from your previous legal experience helps you most in your position today?
Repp: Being Freeman’s first in-house counsel taught me two very important skills. First is to prioritize your workload in a way that supports the business. For Freeman, sales are key, and that is why our first priority is supporting the sales and operations staff with whatever they may need — projects have their place, but the day-to-day work that goes on needs to be priority. The second was to do the work as quickly as possible without sacrificing quality. It became quite clear early on that, if I didn’t get the work turned around at amazing speed, I wasn’t going to get the work in the first place. Both of these skills are the basis of our department’s customer-service philosophy today.
TL: What’s been the single most satisfying thing about being GC for Freeman?
Repp: Knowing each day that I am contributing to Freeman’s and our employees’ success.
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