Mary Ann Hynes paves the way

The first-ever woman GC of a Fortune 500 company discusses her career and the importance of mentoring.

One day, while Mary Ann Hynes was still in high school, she eavesdropped on a conversation between her mother and her brother. Her brother was in college majoring in physics at the time. He had gotten all As on his report card, except for one B, in thermodynamics. “If you only applied yourself more, put in the extra effort, you would have gotten all As,” she remembers her mother saying with conviction, making thermodynamics sounds as easy as social studies. At this point, Hynes popped in, “Mom, could you explain it to me? What exactly is thermodynamics?” Her mother stared back at her, a hint of confusion in her eyes, then sternly said, “Mary Ann, get out of here. This doesn’t concern you.” Hynes chuckled and did as she was told.

Despite the fact that Hynes’ parents weren’t highly educated professionals, they made education a priority for their two children as they were growing up. And the lesson was not lost on Hynes.

As an undergrad, she studied math and political science, which she thought was a good preparation for law school. While in law school, Hynes quickly realized she had a passion for business and made an unusual decision. Rather than take the usual law firm track directly out of law school, she was going to go after an in-house position. And when she graduated in 1971, that’s exactly what she did.

“The day after I took the bar, I went to Commerce Clearinghouse (CCH) on the recommendation of a friend, and they asked when I could start,” Hynes explains. “I said tomorrow!” That was the beginning of a 25-year career with the tax-services company.

Recognizing her talent as a lawyer and her savvy with business matters on a global scale, CCH named Hynes vice president and general counsel in 1979. At 32, she was the Fortune 500’s first-ever woman general counsel.

Since her successful tenure with CCH, Hynes has held a number of GC positions at respected global companies, including IMC Global Inc. and Wolters Kluwer. Since 2007, Hynes has stood at the helm of the legal department of Corn Products, a global agricultural company based in Illinois.

Q: Tell me about being named the first woman GC of a Fortune 500 company.

A: CCH had on its board some very distinguished individuals who knew what they were doing when they appointed me as GC.

I was not aware that I was the only woman in this category, but when I joined the ABA’s GC committee, I was an unusual person in the room. There were less than a handful of women and none were at Fortune 500 companies.

My superiors surprised me by actually taking that action—making me a part of the executive team. Not only was I the only female, but I was also 20 years younger than everyone else. Many companies were not used to seeing a woman in law, but as GC? It was almost unheard of.

People have been tremendously supportive. Being in-house is a wonderful experience.

Q: What obstacles did you encounter on your way up?

A: I always joke that I attribute my success to having an older brother who never cut me any slack.

You have to be a negotiator. I wanted a family. My CEO said you can have it all. He was just perceiving what the circumstances were. He wasn’t someone who spoon-fed you, but enabled you.

I’ve learned in my career not to be afraid. The biggest limitations can be self imposed. You have to be fearless and have your compass in the right spot, but don’t limit yourself.

Q: Tell me about your current work as GC of Corn Products.

A: I am the executive in charge of both legal and regulatory. We are the most global mid-cap company in the U.S. This presents both challenges and opportunities as we grow.

Our legal team plays a huge role in compliance around the world. I love to do transactional work as well.

Q: What do you find to be most rewarding about your work as GC?

A: I love the variety. I never had two days practicing law that were the same. The team that I have assembled works to find ways to overcome any challenges that we face.

I like being part of a unified team looking for ways to grow a business. I have more lawyers outside the U.S. than inside. I have always been with international companies. It’s a challenge, but it’s great fun.

We have a high esprit de corps; we are a trusted partner. It makes coming to work every day a joy.

Q: What do you love most about your current position?

A: First, it’s the people. I am blessed not only to work with a great legal and regulatory team but a great group around the world. They make it fun to come to work each morning.

We love to communicate and help each other. I love the challenges we face every day and creating shareholder value. I love the variety.

Q: What have you done to help women in law?

A: I realized early on that women need mentors—someone to help them navigate through corporate law. When I first joined The Chicago Network [which works to increase the number of women in executive positions], there were so few women GCs. I became chair, and now we have many women GCs.

Through all my organizational work, I’ve strived toward the advancement of women lawyers.

Q: Who were your mentors as you were growing up in your legal career?

A: I mentioned Bob Bartlett, who was the president of CCH. He was one that empowered me and never spoon-fed me at all.

Also, Russell M. Baird, who was one of the founding partners of Sidley Austin. Jean Allard, who was the first female of the Business Law Section of the ABA. You could not ask for a more inclusive person—just the most embracingand warm person. My friend, Rober tL. Berner Jr., who is a partner at Baker & McKenzie.

They have made my legal career, more than I could ever express.

A huge shout out to my parents who are both people who believed in excellence. They both worked in factories, but they inspired my brother and me to accomplish whatever we could. And we did. I owe them everything.

Q: How do you feel about having a Transformative Leadership Award named in your honor?

A: Honored and humbled. It is a statement to the people who have helped me throughout my career.

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer wanting a successful career?

A: Never stop learning. If you want to be with a company, learn as much as you can about that company and the entire industry. Show that you are committed to a business.

Do whatever you can to meet and learn from others. Broaden your horizons and don’t be afraid to take chances. Raise your hand when someone is looking for a volunteer for a tough assignment.

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: There are so many things that have happened. The proudest moment is when my husband and I introduced the class of attorneys in 2005. The new members of the bar included my son, Nicholas. It meant a great deal.

Q: If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?

A: This is it! I am living my dream and I am amazed that I have had this privilege.

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