Without women role models, Hilton Worldwide's GC blazed her own trail to the top

In-house veteran Kristin Campbell believes lawyers provide an advantage to businesses

Kristin Campbell can’t remember exactly what triggered her interest in law. It was probably a tv show. “Sadly, I watched a lot of TV as a child,” she admits. Even so, the good-versus-evil, right-versus-wrong plots of law dramas weren’t what she found compelling. “I was always attracted to the intellectual, academic side of the law,” she says. “There are always two sides to stories, and trying to use a legal backdrop to resolve those differences was interesting to me, from an academic standpoint.”  

But growing up in the ’60s, every lawyer Campbell could look up to, both in real life and in the media, was a man. That included her father, a trial lawyer. She mentioned to him one day that she was interested in his profession, and that she might want to be a legal secretary or a paralegal when she grew up. He just looked at her and asked, “Well, why wouldn’t you want to be a lawyer?”

“It was almost as if the thought hadn’t occurred to me until he said so,” Campbell says. “I do give him a lot of credit for supporting me and encouraging me in going down the path.”

From there, the story unfolded in classic form. Campbell graduated from Cornell Law in 1987 and headed straight to Rackemann, Sawyer & Brewster, a small, real-estate boutique law firm in Boston. Later, she moved to a larger firm, Goodwin Procter, and after a few years, she shifted in-house to Staples Inc., where she climbed the ranks to general counsel.

In June 2011, Campbell took an “irresistible opportunity” and came onboard as executive vice president and general counsel of Hilton Worldwide, a hospitality company with 10 brands and hotels in 88 countries that was named the 38th largest private company in the nation by Forbes in 2011.

Q: Was it difficult to make the transition from law firm to in-house work?

A: Not for a second. I don’t think there’s any decision I’ve ever made where I looked back for a nanosecond. It was probably something I’ve always wanted to do. At the time, it was a bit of a lifestyle choice. But it was the only way I could see to really expand my skill set. Large law firms don’t provide that kind of opportunity for young lawyers. You’re kind of stuck in a groove, and you’re in that swim lane for a long time, if not perpetuity. I was very interested in growing my skills to be much more broad than what I was going to get in private practice.

Q: How did you end up at Hilton?

A: I was general counsel at Staples before this, and I’d been in-house there for about 17 years. People ask me this all the time: Why did I make a change with a well-established career, a new husband and a great life up in Boston and at Staples? I have to answer that with just two words: irresistible opportunity. It’s true.

There were a couple of real triggers there for me. First, Hilton is one of the most well-known brands in the world, and it’s coming up on its 100-year anniversary. The idea of being part of the leadership team that moves this incredible brand into its second century was just irresistible to me. The second part of that—and I think the two are linked—is we have a very energetic and visionary CEO at Hilton. His enthusiasm about where this business is going was a powerful motivator for me in deciding to make the move.

Q: What kind of work does your legal team do?

A: I inherited a great team, and we’re going to be even stronger in the future. There are roughly 50-plus lawyers. We are in five offices around the world. Hilton is in [88] countries, so we’ve set up the legal departments so that we have broad, global coverage. I have lawyers in Virginia, which is the headquarters, but also in Florida and Memphis, Tenn.; and in London, Shanghai, Singapore, Dubai and Mumbai.

As a result of having broad geographical coverage, we really try to do as much as we can in-house. That includes all kinds of corporate work. All litigation and dispute resolution at least goes through the legal department, and all the commercial transactions that the company needs to run the business: real estate, what we call management agreements and really anything we can do legally in support of our brand. We have 10 brands at Hilton, so that includes things such as advertising and marketing advice.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of your job?

A: The most rewarding part for me is getting people to drink the Kool-Aid about my vision around lawyers, the legal profession and what we can bring to an enterprise. I am a big believer that lawyers can really provide an advantage to our businesses, not just be there to say “yes,” “no” or create a safety net for when things go wrong, but really help drive action and activity in the business itself. The most rewarding part of my job is when I see people starting to get that, whether it be our business partners here, our clients or, more importantly, when folks on my team really understand the power that they have to do great things for the business.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: It’s almost the flip side of that. I break the most challenging piece up into two related parts. One is dealing with the philosophical challenge that lawyers can slow things down or they can provide obstacles and roadblocks. Getting people over that is one of the challenges.

Related to that, there’s a bandwidth challenge. Any general counsel of a multinational global organization these days is going to tell you that there’s just not enough time to do all the things you want to do and manage the logistics of all the time zones, countries, languages, etc.

Q: With hotels all over the world, have you had to familiarize yourself with global law?

A: I brought that to the table when I came to Hilton. Staples is in about 25 countries, and I had run the international legal function there for awhile before I was general counsel. So I had experience in Europe, Asia, South America and India before I joined Hilton. I haven’t had to necessarily brush up; it’s really just bringing my past experience and then trying to scale it over 88 countries.

Q: Where is your favorite vacation spot?

A: It’s really hard to narrow down. The world is such an incredible place. If I go to my heart of hearts and tell you my favorite spot to get away, it’s a place where Hilton has no presence. And that’s on the island of Martha’s Vineyard, where no national chains have any hotels. But I’m a Vineyard fan from years back, and that’s where I go to really disconnect.

Q: If you weren’t working in law, what would your dream job be?

A: I would be a TV chef. But not like today’s TV chefs. I would be the old, classic, Julia Child, low-glamour kind who’s really all about the food.

Contributing Author

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