Kristin Coleman’s on-the-job education steered her toward a challenging position at Brunswick

Practice made perfect for this general counsel

Education can only take you so far. In any profession, there comes a point when you have to get out of the classroom and onto the job. A recent article in the New York Times, “What They Don’t Teach Law Students: Lawyering,” makes the case that this is especially true in the legal industry. Kristin Coleman, general counsel, vice president and corporate secretary of Brunswick Corp., says she related to the article’s assertion that law schools emphasize theory and don’t offer much practical experience. “The academic study of the law is interesting, but the practice of it is an entirely different thing and a lot more fun,” she explains. 

After receiving a classic liberal arts education, Coleman says she attended law school at her mother’s suggestion, going into the University of Michigan without much of a plan for her future career. After graduation, her real-life education equipped her with many skills that are applicable in her current position. “I think I am a much happier lawyer than I was a law student,” she says.

She started off as a commercial litigator with Wildman Harrold (now Edwards Wildman), then after a marriage and a move across the country, made “a complete 180-degree turn” and became a corporate lawyer in the time of the dotcom boom. After working on several IPOs, she was recruited to go in-house at Brunswick, a company that while best known for its bowling and billiards equipment, actually has a range of different businesses that keep Coleman busy with varied and rewarding work.

 

Q: How did you end up at Brunswick?

A: I got a call one day and was asked if I’d be interested in an in-house opportunity. It was appealing. Brunswick is an interesting company in that it’s got a lot of diverse businesses, a lot of legal issues and the then-general counsel had a very open-minded view of roles that lawyers can play. The opportunity was broad and deep, and not really a pigeonholed inhouse job with a narrow focus.

I have been at Brunswick—mostly—for the past nine years. I left briefly in late 2008 to take a job at Mead Johnson Nutrition Co. They make Enfamil infant formula. They were in the process of spinning off from Bristol-Myers Squibb and going public. So I went to Mead Johnson to help them with the IPO and to help them set up that public company structure. While I was at Mead Johnson, I was offered the general counsel job here, so I came back, which was great. I’ve had this job now for a little over three years.

 

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

A: We have four primary businesses. Most people think of Brunswick and they think bowling or pool tables, but we are primarily a marine business. We manufacture and sell marine engines, usually for recreational boats. Our second-biggest business is our boat business; we are the world’s largest recreational boat manufacturer. We also own Life Fitness, which manufactures and sells fitness equipment to gyms, hotels and professional and college sports teams. The smallest business is the bowling and billiards business.

One of the things that’s really interesting about working here is that we have a smorgasbord of legal issues. We have product-related litigation, we have employment issues (we have 15,000 employees), and we are unionized in some locations, so we have some union-related issues. We obviously have a lot of commercial contract work. We have some pretty meaningful intellectual property, so we have intellectual property lawyers. Because we are a product manufacturer, we have product-related compliance issues and trade compliance issues. We try for the most part to keep the meaningful and interesting legal work in-house.

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

A: I am very fortunate to work with a great and very motivated team of business leaders as well as a really talented law department. I’m proud of my group. I really enjoy the dynamic of working with both the business people and the people within my own department.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

A: On a day-to-day level the challenge is volume. Now, that’s also what I like about my job, so it is a double-edged sword. I really like the fact that we have a diverse range of issues. There’s a lot to keep track of. That’s both a really big challenge and an awful lot of fun.

The second challenge that I would name is politics. I think we have a very hard-charging management team, and they can bump up against each other sometimes. In the role of counselor you can sometimes get in the middle of that.

Q: Is there any special knowledge a lawyer needs to bring to work at a manufacturing company?

A: For the most part our team comprises strong commercial generalists. So I would say it’s not so much about their specialized knowledge of the law but their ability to act as pragmatic business people and to interact with a lot of different functions, including IT, accounting and HR.

Q: You spoke on our Financial Fraud panel at SuperConference this year. What advice can you offer in-house counsel to help keep their companies on the straight and narrow?

A: It boils down to culture. You often hear people talk about tone at the top, and that’s become cliché, but I think it is really critical to have the right support and communication from senior leadership. That’s where it starts.

After that it’s important to have a law department that develops relationships with people in the field. It’s hard, and not particularly effective, for the ethics office to parachute in on an ethics complaint without having any prior connection to that business, or the people or that location. You can be much more effective if you’re proactive rather than reactive, in a way that supports your role as a counselor and helps you understand that business before you get in a situation where you have to go in and sort things out.

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

A: If I weren’t working in the law, I’m not sure that I would be working in the same way at all. I think I’d be volunteering or going on fabulous vacations. I do sit on a non-profit board today; I really enjoy that. I’d probably devote a bit more time to doing something like that. But I’d also like to be spending a couple months in Italy.

Q: What’s the best bowling score you’ve ever gotten?

A: I am a miserable bowler. I am lucky if I hit three digits.

Contributing Author

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