Web-exclusive excerpts from the Q&A with Thomas Lalla, general counsel of Pernod Ricard USA.
Q: Are there any personal philosophies you try to impart on your legal department?
A: Though I'm a big advocate of technology, I'm a firm believer in direct personal contact. I try to encourage people to leave their offices and spend time with the business people and talk to them or to pick up the phone and call people, not to rely upon e-mail as the only method of communication. I think that is a real problem in any company where people communicate solely by e-mail. I think what's happened in the business world is that people rely so much on e-mail that we're losing that sense of interpersonal contact. That's something, as lawyers, that is very important, and we need to maintain that and continue to practice it.
The lawyers here generally tend to be very hands on, and I've encouraged that kind of involvement. I was always very hands on. That's something that, as you get more advanced in your career, you get less of, although I still try to do some of that myself. I love being a lawyer and I don't want to lose those skills.
I also try to encourage the lawyers to be on the frontline. Everyone in my department basically has their own clients--departments--that they deal with on a regular basis. They know their business, and have a good sense of what the client is trying to accomplish. At the end of the day, if the client can't do it a certain way, understand what they want to accomplish and try to help work with them to achieve their goal. I always tell [my department] if someone makes a mistake, it's my fault, but if they do a good job, they get the credit. That's something I think you have to have as a general counsel.
Another thing I've learned over the years: I used to be apologetic about being a generalist, but I think that's something that has probably helped me more than anything else. I know a lot of different areas of law, and I also know the issues, although I may not know how to resolve them. So in using outside counsel, I can at least do some preliminary research. Basically I'm trying to either validate what I already know with the outside counsel or I'm bringing the issues to them because I've already spotted them. I try to learn from the outside lawyers so the next time I can go back and do it internally.
But I know when I don't know something. That's always dangerous, and I think some lawyers are afraid to say "I don't know." Clients expect you to know a lot, but when you hold yourself out as knowing everything, that is when lawyers get in trouble.
Q: As GC, have you faced any out-of-the-ordinary or unique dilemmas?
A: One of the more challenging situations I was faced with was back in 2000. We had a fire at one of our warehouses at our distillery in Kentucky that sat on a bluff overlooking the Kentucky River. There were 20,000 barrels of bourbon that ended up being consumed in that fire. Unfortunately, as it was burning it was blowing down into the Kentucky River. There were no casualties, very fortunately. There was some damage done to the water treatment that was adjacent to it. Essentially there were no injuries, which is the most fortunate thing of all.
Within a matter of days, the EPA had been in the river and said the river looked fine, there were no problems. A week later we started to discovery that dead fish were washing up downstream along the shores of the river. Apparently sugar in the alcohol that poured into the river was being fed upon by the algae and taking oxygen out of the water, and the fish were dying. We tried oxygenating the river, working with the local environmental authorities to try to ameliorate the problem, but it was really just a matter of time before this plume of unoxidized water was going to go into the Ohio River and then disperse. That was pretty difficult.
A few weeks later I was invited to a meeting in Frankfurt, Ky., held by one of the state authorities to discuss what everyone learned from that experience. I thought because it was our bourbon we might be given a hard time. I was pleasantly surprised at how well the state had reacted to all the work that we had done during the course of the three or four weeks that this environmental disaster was going on. We never found out the source of the fire, but it was an extremely difficult time.
Q: What are you proudest of when you look back on your time at Pernod-Ricard?
A: The way the company has really grown and developed and the sophistication that has come with that in terms of the products the company has taken on. I think the legal department has grown and developed with the company. Now I have a group of 21 lawyers. From being solo to having 28 people working for me is quite something.