Growing up with lawyers for parents, it would have been expected that Janice Block take the path directly into the family business. And while working in law was certainly appealing to the young Midwesterner—she spent plenty of dinnertime conversations as a child discussing the topic—Block had her sights set on a different career: journalism.
After high school, Block headed to Princeton University, where she majored in history and focused on journalism—specifically, the role of the news media in shaping historical events. But as graduation approached, she still had that itch for law. Applying to both law schools and journalism master’s programs, Block chose journalism and decided to attend the one-year program at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.
“It was a great program, and I loved the work that I did,” she explains. “But I spent the summer after I graduated looking for jobs and got only two offers: one to be an anchor in Montgomery, Ala., and one to be a reporter in Davenport, Iowa. So I went to law school.”
Putting her passion for journalism on the back burner, Block headed to Columbia Law School, where she met fellow student Brad Smith, who quickly took on the role of mentor. A few years older than Block, Smith—who is now the executive vice president and general counsel of Microsoft—would eventually lure Block away from a post-law school career at several high-profile law firms, such as Kirkland & Ellis, Seyfarth Shaw and Rudnick & Wolfe (now DLA Piper), where she was partner.
Smith’s intervention helped pave an unexpected but highly successful career path for the journalist-turned-lawyer. That road would ultimately lead Block to the stand at the helm of the legal department of Kaplan Inc., a for-profit higher education company with a broad global reach.
Q: After working in law firms for several years, how did you end up in-house?
A: I had left Kirkland to help form the intellectual property practice at Seyfarth Shaw, and while there, Brad, who was deputy GC at Microsoft at the time, called and wanted me to me to do copyright and piracy work for Microsoft as an outside lawyer. Later, I moved my IP practice from Seyfarth to Rudnick & Wolfe. I wasn’t there very long at all when Microsoft said they had decided to hire in-house lawyers in U.S. regional offices. They wanted me to take the position in the Chicago office. I spent the next five years as regional counsel for Microsoft.
Q: What attracted you to in-house work?
A: I hadn’t been looking for an in-house position and, on top of that, I was a partner in a law firm by then. Brad was the big draw and, of course, Microsoft as a company was a tremendous draw. They were one of my favorite clients. I knew I couldn’t pass it up.
Q: How did your career progress next?
A: In 2002, after five years, I retired from Microsoft. Microsoft had hired me when I was seven months pregnant with my third child. But my husband also was a professional, and having a dual professional couple with multiple children is tough. Work-life balance was a huge issue. My husband and I had to decide whose career took a back seat. I decided mine would. I was retired for about a year and a half. But I was consulting for Microsoft the whole time.
Q: Did you do consulting work as a lawyer?
A: No, my consulting work wasn’t legal. With my journalism background, I had created a writing workshop for Microsoft. I am a huge fan of good writing. So I used to conduct it from time to time at Microsoft.
Q: When did you go back to work?
A: My husband and I split, and a lot of law firms had been keeping in contact with me. In February 2004, I joined Greenberg Traurig in Chicago. But just like with Rudnick & Wolfe, I was only there for a year when I was asked to interview for a GC position.
Q: How did you end up at Kaplan?
A: A good friend told me about a recruiter who only placed GCs. It was my dream to be a GC. I sent my friend my resume, and the next day, the recruiter called me. Two weeks later I accepted the GC position at Career Education Corp.
I stayed there for about a year and a half before moving to Kaplan Higher Education in 2006. I have been here five years now, and this past September, I was promoted to executive vice president and GC of Kaplan Inc. [the parent company of Kaplan Higher Education], which has a substantial presence in Canada, the U.K., China, Singapore, Australia and India.
Q: What’s a typical day in the life of Janice Block?
A: It starts at 5 a.m. when I have to get my daughter, a competitive ice skater, to the rink. Then I go into work. I manage a lot of people, who keep things going throughout the day. My department is legal, regulatory and compliance. I have lawyers in charge of litigation, IP, contracts, labor and employment, and corporate mergers and acquisitions.
The hallmark for me as GC has been my team. It is a talented group of people who get along so well and are so client service- oriented. Our clients love us, and it makes work fun.
Q: What do you find to be most rewarding about your work?
A: I love mentoring others. There have been people who have told me I have changed their lives in a positive way, and those are the best parts of my career.
Q: What are your biggest challenges?
A: Geography is a huge challenge. I am in Chicago but I have lawyers in other cities. Then we have business units spread throughout the world. You have to be really efficient and strategic about how to manage your workload.
Another challenge is the industry we work in. For-profit higher education has been under attack. We have had to face a number of new regulations, regulatory inquiries and media stories.
Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer wanting a career in-house?
A: There are certain skills that are really important that you don’t really learn in law school, such as the ability to communicate well and package information, and how to get it in front of your clients so they can easily digest it. Problem solving and figuring out creative ways to get to yes are very important too.
Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?
A: It’s when people I have mentored or I have spent time with come to me and say, “You have changed my career or my life in a positive way. You have taught me a lot.”
Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be doing?
A: That’s easy. I’d be an investigative journalist.