Coca-Cola North America General Counsel Leslie Turner advised a group of students at University of Georgia School of Law to keep in mind that their responsibilities are not meant to make them popular.
“If they’re loving you, maybe you’re not speaking those words of courage to them,” Turner said while taking questions during the 2012 Edith House Lecture at the law school’s Dean Rusk Center.
In-house lawyers must build a “relationship of trust” with the business people they serve, she said. The best way to do that is to be “embedded” with the business client, working with them, going to meetings with them and demonstrating curiosity and interest in what they do.
Despite the close ties in-house lawyers should create with clients, Turner added, “Don’t cross the line.”
She also advised the students to find their own route to courage in their practices. “Courage can be demonstrated in a lot of ways,” she said. She raised the question of whether courageous corporate lawyers could have taken action to prevent the risky subprime lending that led to the financial disasters of the past decade.
“I wonder if, when the bankers talked about making loans without adequate documentation or bundling mortgage-backed securities so you couldn’t tell the good ones from the bad, if there was a lawyer who raised her hand and said, ‘This is not a good idea.’ There might have been one, I don’t know.”
Turner recommended that the students read a book called “Courageous Counsel: Conversations with Women General Counsel in the Fortune 500,” saying she heard it mentioned recently when she spoke on a GC panel. “Something is going on in our environment when people are all talking about courage. Confidence in business is at an all-time low,” she said.
Since most days are filled with routine work, she advised the students, “Look for ordinary ways to have courage.” She gave as an example an anecdote she heard while getting a private tour at the U.S. Supreme Court from a woman who had worked there for decades. The woman told her that before the arrival of the first female justice, all the women who worked on the court’s support staff wore dresses or skirts, stockings and high heels. “It was their uniform.” Soon after her appointment, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor arrived at work one day wearing a “beautiful white pant suit.” The very next day, every woman on the court staff came to work in a pant suit.
Turner spoke as part of a lecture program hosted by the Women Law Student Association in honor of Edith E. House, co-valedictorian of the 1925 UGA law school class, the first to include women. House went on to private practice in Florida for four years, then was named assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida. She held the assistant’s job for 30 years before she was promoted to U.S. Attorney in 1959. She retired in 1963 and died in 1987.
Over the past 29 years, House lecturers have included law professors from across the country. Last year’s House lecturer was Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol W. Hunstein.
Turner’s lecture was titled, “Winning or winning with integrity? A lawyer’s role in the corporate world.”
“For-profit public companies are very focused on the bottom line,” she said. “Shareholders demand it.” But she said she learned that companies need their lawyers to have the courage to help them go beyond the bottom line.
She recalled a request from an executive at Coca-Cola soon after she left her partnership at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington and joined the company in 2006 as associate general counsel in the Bottling Investments Group. “Leslie, we need more from you. We need you not to just tell us what we could do, but what we should do,” the executive said.
Turner, a graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, also clerked for former Chief Judge William C. Pryor of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and served as assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Office of Territorial and International Affairs.
Turner built her lecture around what she called a “social license to operate.” She defined it as the support of the marketplace, which means the communities in which a company sells its products or services. “We earn our social license from you—the consumers,” she said.
She said people make purchases even of ubiquitous brands like Coca-Cola on the basis of how they’re feeling about the company. She gave examples in the news that companies must address in order to be successful. For Apple, it was alleged labor abuses. For the diamond business, it was mining and environmental concerns. For Coke, she used a news story about water rights in developing countries.
She also cited a study showing that companies that “proactively manage environmental issues” outperform others.
“Being mindful of social issues sometimes makes plain old good business sense,” she said. “Our success depends upon the consistent renewal of the social license to operate.”
One student asked Turner how she reconciles the social license to operate philosophy with the increasingly evident link between the problem of obesity and drinking sugary, carbonated soft drinks. Turner answered that obesity is a complex problem with no simple solution, and that Coke offers many different brands and calorie levels, “something for everyone.”
She also revealed that her Coke product of choice is Full Throttle, an energy drink heavy on sugar and caffeine. “But,” she added, “I’m very active.”
This article originally appeared in the Daily Report.