Janet Langford Kelly, senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary at ConocoPhillips, was honored with the Anastasia D. Kelly Award at the Third Annual Transformative Leadership Awards dinner Tuesday night. Before the dinner, Kelly talked about her career in an interview with InsideCounsel.
Q. When and why did you decide to become a lawyer?
A. I graduated from college, and it took me by surprise. I really didn’t have any plans. So I ended up living at home for a year and working in a buyers’ training program in a department store. I came home one night and was complaining to my dad about how awful I thought it was. He always wanted to be a lawyer, and he went to night school when I was young and became a lawyer quite late in life. He convinced me to take the LSAT and look at law school with the idea it would combine intellectual challenge with being part of the world. That sounded very appealing to me so I applied to law school and the rest is history.
Q. After graduating from Yale Law School, clerking for a judge, working at two law firms and becoming a partner at Sidley & Austin, why did you decide to go in-house?
A. I was a deal lawyer and loved doing deals. You have all the excitement of getting to the finish line and solving all the problems along the way. But one of the frustrations was you birthed this baby and never get to see how it grew up, to see whether it worked, it didn’t work, what you could have done better, lessons to learn from it. I had the chance to go in-house as general counsel of Sara Lee Corp., which was a very M&A-oriented corporation at the time. I had the opportunity to learn more about the business drivers of deals. Seeing which ones worked and which ones didn’t and why was a very attractive challenge.
Q. Along the way in your career, did you feel you had to overcome special challenges because you were a woman?
A. Oh sure. A woman’s experience is always going to be different. When I was working on some of my first deals, people would call me honey and ask me to get them coffee and all the things you hear about from the old days that I am not sure are a fixture any more. But I think young women even today have to struggle harder to establish their competency in people’s eyes.
Q. In your position as general counsel at ConocoPhillips, what is the best part of your job and what is the most challenging?
A. The best part is that it is a fascinating industry where the law is centrally involved in the business and the people are terrific to work with. The most challenging part is representing an industry that, for reasons that utterly elude me, people have a grudge against. We go to dangerous places in the world, do dangerous work, produce a product that allows people to live like kings used to live hundreds of years ago, are in an industry that has the lowest return in the S&P average, and people still resent us.
Q. If you could choose your dream job, what would it be?
A. It would be the job I’ve got. I work with interesting people, travel to fabulous places and work on fascinating legal problems.
Q. What was your reaction to learning you were a winner of the Anastasia D. Kelly Award?
A. I was honored and humbled. It’s a terrific honor.
Read more of the interview with Janet Langford Kelly in the June issue of InsideCounsel.