Brian Burton, the new general counsel of Daimler Trucks North America LLC, keeps a comic from The New Yorker on his desk. The comic shows two hunters watching a third, who has been picked up and decapitated by a dragon. One of the remaining hunters looks over at his companion and says, “This tarnishes his legacy as a great hunter.”
“I keep that on my desk because at any time, you can make a big mistake, and there goes your legacy as a great lawyer,” Burton says.
Unlike the dragon’s lair, Daimler Trucks is familiar territory for the newly appointed general counsel. In a conversation with InsideCounsel, Burton spoke of his initial intentions to become a judge, his venture outside Daimler’s legal department and the importance of learning a broad range of skills for the in-house legal world.
Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
I went to law school because when I was a younger person, I was thinking, “I think the end goal of my career is to become a judge.” However, after practicing law for the past 20 years, it’s not on my list of aspirations any longer.
How did your career progress just after law school?
I left law school and joined a large law firm, so I worked long days and weekends. I had a pretty typical career path through law school, through a large law firm and then in-house.
Why did you decide on an in-house legal career?
I practiced at the law firm for 10 years and really enjoyed my legal practice, but was looking for an opportunity to be involved in what I consider to be a more interesting business model. I wanted to get involved in business. I have a finance background from my undergraduate, so I started looking at in-house opportunities.
How did you end up at Daimler Trucks?
There are precious few in-house positions available in the Northwest, and I really wanted to try to stay in Oregon, in Portland, if I could. So it turned out that this company, Daimler Trucks, had a position for an in-house product litigator and I jumped on it. That was 12 years ago.
Tell me about your new role as GC of Daimler Trucks.
This is the position I always hoped for when I went in-house, and I really feel like I’ve come home. I spent eight years as a product litigator here, and then I sort of did a “development step,” as we call it here at the company. I moved out of the legal department and I took a position at the engineering group, heading up the compliance and regulatory affairs, and I did that for three years and then was promoted to general counsel and came back to the legal department.
We’re a pretty small legal group. With 13 lawyers and two paralegals, we have a lot to do. We’re what I consider a small boutique law firm, and one of the greatest parts of it is the relationships you have with the other lawyers because we are so small, and we work really closely together and we work as a team.
What was it like working outside of the legal department?
I was just put in a position where I was forced to become familiar with a side of the business that I had no exposure to, and that’s part of the progress through a company for most people. If you want to grow in a company, you really have to broaden the scope of your knowledge of your company and your organization and sometimes have to take jobs that are outside of your area of expertise.
Why are you a good fit for this position?
I don’t know why, but I better be, right? You’re one mistake away from being replaced because you really can’t afford to make mistakes in this position. The issues are big and they’re important, so you have to be careful. So I hope I’m the right fit. I spent 10 years in private practice and brought experience from various types of law, and eight years in-house and then three years in a nonlegal related role, so I developed a broad range of skills that will serve me well for fulfilling the responsibilities of general counsel.
Have you encountered anything unexpected so far in your new position?
It’s my first role in the company where I really have visibility to the entire organization. It’s not unexpected, but surprising, the complexity of the organization and of the issues involved in managing an organization of this size.
What advice would you give young lawyers who would someday like to become GC of a company?
If I was a young lawyer and I have ambitions to go in-house one day, I would try to get as broad a practice base as I can. I would try different things and try to get a broad range of experiences, because when you’re in-house, you’ll have an opportunity to use all of them. I would encourage them to also understand or try to understand how a business works. It’s not like a law firm. As you grow up, you want to try to understand the businesses and how they operate, and learn about the business so that if you’re in-house, you won’t have to learn from scratch, you’ll be ready to go. In the law, there’s no substitute for hard work.