Sweet Success

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Vivian Tseng

Vivian Tseng may not have had her sights set on law school when she took her first classes at New College, but she was determined to make the most of her undergraduate education. Tseng's Virginia-based college didn't offer the major she wanted--a combination of political science and political philosophy. So she devised her own--political theory--which offered her the benefits she wanted out of both areas of study.

Her drive and creativity didn't stop there.

Tseng ultimately decided on law school because she believed it would connect her to the "real world." After graduating from Georgetown, she immediately landed a law firm gig that allowed her to try her hand at practice areas including litigation, corporate, tax, commercial, and trust and estates.

With determination and well-rounded legal experience backing her talent, nothing stood in the way of Tseng's next goal--achieving work-life balance while maintaining her place as a successful lawyer. "The only way I could have a career as well as time for my family was to look for an in-house position," she explains.

And it didn't take long. In 1986, Tseng left the law firm world for an in-house position at Welch's, where she has climbed the ranks. She now serves as vice president, general counsel and secretary in the company's three-lawyer legal department, as well as the chief legal officer of the National Grape Cooperative Association Inc. (NGCA)--Welch's parent organization.

Q: How did you end up at Welch's?

A: I had an informational interview with a head hunter. He had just come from talking with the then-general counsel of Welch's, who at the time was undergoing a very threatening tax audit. I had begun to focus on tax at the law firm, so the head hunter thought it was serendipitous. I talked with the Welch's GC, and I believe his interest in adding staff was fueled by his interview with me. He had a very positive reaction to what I had to offer.

Q: Outside of work-life balance, what attracted you to an in-house position?

A: Specializing at a law firm wasn't very fulfilling. It wasn't intellectually interesting. I was also looking for an opportunity to be something more than a tax specialist, which was very difficult to find in private practice. That's what attracted me to in-house practice. And I've always been really interested in business. So looking for a broader legal practice area and being closer to a business enterprise made in-house work very attractive.

Q: The NGCA owns Welch's. How does this affect your job?

A:It means I have three very distinct constituencies, the growers and our two boards. And the two boards are separate bodies: a board and a corporation. They develop personalities and quirks and different perspectives. In addition to the two boards and the ownership base, there is also management and its perspectives. It makes for an interesting set of perspectives to balance and to accommodate.

Q: How has the legal department changed since you took over as GC?

A:We have changed in two respects. We have brought substantive expertise in-house. We continue to be generalists, but I intentionally started to build substantive in-house expertise quite a while back because that makes for the most cost-effective and efficient kind of operation. Before, we were a conduit between our in-house clients and outside counsel. And at this point, even though my department is very small, our reliance on outside counsel is at a historic low. It's because of that substantive expertise we have built over time.

We also have gone from a no-assumption-of-risk to a knowing acceptance of risk. We're much less risk adverse than we were 20 years ago. We understand that it's riskier not to assume risk.

Q: What does the legal department handle on a regular basis?

A:We handle benefits, ERISA work and employment law mostly in-house. We do regulatory compliance and all manners of contracts. Any purchasing a business corporation needs, we handle in-house about 100 percent. Trademark maintenance is one area where we have an outside law firm help us. We're not a publicly held company so we don't have the SEC regulations to deal with.

Q: Have you suffered through any major litigation?

A:We're a food company. We don't have product liability problems because we can't afford to. We're very careful about that, and as a result, litigation is infrequent.

Q: Does your legal department have a formal diversity initiative in place?

A:We're small enough that we don't need formal programs. When I have an opening, I send out the information to the ethnic bar associations in town.

In terms of outside counsel, I do reach out to my colleagues at the ethnic bar associations nationally to identify minority lawyers.

Q: Why is involvement in outside organizations important to you?

A: It comes very naturally to me. It's just a matter of my personality and my values. The best way I can contribute is through my profession.

Q: What do you like most about your job at Welch's?

A:I like being in charge. I also enjoy being the adviser to the boards and to management. I'm enjoying the fruits of my years. I'm a very senior person in this organization, and I really feel that I have the respect of the entire organization.

Q: What are the more challenging aspects of your job?

A:I will never enjoy doing performance evaluations.

Q: What advice would you give to an up-and-coming lawyer with the goal to someday be GC of a large company?

A:Recognize early that there is no one path, but a lot of different paths, to the top. Relax, polish up your people skills, find ways to meet your clients in their comfort zones and develop good business skills. And once you've joined a company, understand the industry within which your company competes and get to know the levers of revenue generation for your company.

Q: What is your favorite Welch's product?

A:The crown jewel--Concord grape juice.

Editor

Cathleen Flahardy

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