Q&A: Tom Sabatino, Thomas A. Mars Award

The executive vice president and general counsel of Walgreens puts his belief in diversity into action

Read profiles of all the winners here.

Age: 53

Law School: University of Pennsylvania Law School

Favorite lawyer in history: John Adams

 

Q: What was your first job after law school?

A: I was an attorney at Testa Hurwitz & Thibeault in Boston, a boutique firm that did venture capital. I joined the corporate group and represented startups and venture capital companies. My first deal was the IPO of Lotus Development.

 

Q: Who is your favorite lawyer in history?

A: John Adams, because he did something that was considered completely insane at the time. He represented the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. He felt they deserved representation. He believed in the rule of law so strongly that he was willing to represent people with whom he disagreed.

 

Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?

A: I’d spent some time with a family friend, a friend of my father, who was a lawyer and was really interested in what he did. Intellectually it seemed like a good fit for me. It also fit with my personality and my ability to view and analyze things from multiple angles. The critical element for me was the skill of listening and seeking to understand. As with anything else, if you listen with not only your ears, but also your head, you gain insight.

 

Q: Do you have any examples of how that skill has benefited you?

A: In my career, I’ve done a lot of transactions, some big mergers and acquisitions. The ability to listen carefully to not only your own side but also to the other side helps you craft solutions to problems and move toward the common ground. In a mediation or an arbitration, you can get caught on the facts as they appear—we think the other side owes us money; they think we owe them money. But maybe the money isn’t really the issue. Maybe the relationship broke down. You can often be more successful by looking at the best way to bring the relationship back together.

For example, I was working for American Medical International in Omaha, Neb., which ran the teaching hospital that had a relationship with Creighton University. The university and the hospital were fighting over money. The hospital saw the relationship as too expensive and wanted to end it. I got involved in the litigation, and we decided to mediate the case. Once everyone got into the room and talked about what they wanted, it wasn’t a decision to break up the relationship, but how to restructure it and make it stronger. Until we sat down and talked, we didn’t know that was the solution.

Working on a complex transaction, such as a joint venture, people frequently argue over money. But you also need to develop trust and understand the underlying issues that affect the everyday operations.

 

Q: How did your career progress after law school?

A: After three years in law firms, I went in-house at Baxter in 1986 and have spent the rest of my career in-house, with the exception of the two years I spent running a small medical-device company.

I never thought I’d go in-house. I really loved the firms where I worked and thought I’d stay in a law firm my whole career. What attracted me to Baxter is what’s kept me in-house. When you can impact the direction of the company, it’s exciting. You’re part of the business, and you’re guiding the business to the right solutions—even if the solution is sometimes saying, “No, we can’t do that.” I enjoy being in the middle of the action and making it happen on the ground. In a firm, you come in and do some stuff and then leave. You learn some things about the business, but you’re never really part of the business. I love being part of the business and helping other lawyers do the same thing.

 

Q: What kind of support did you receive from your superiors?

A: I was fortunate when I started out. I’ve always been thrown into things. Right after I passed the bar—I’d been practicing for about four months—George Thibeault took me with him to a meeting with a venture capital company we were helping with an investment. I took notes and gathered information during the meeting, and when we left he said, “Good luck. This is your deal.” He was available to guide me and help me, but he put me in charge. Likewise, when I came to Baxter, the attorney who hired me, Marshall Smith, walked into my office during the first week I was there with an airline ticket. He said that one of our internal clients was in Virginia and he wanted me to go there and spend time learning the business.

I’ve been fortunate to have mentors who have encouraged me to take chances and risks and get into the action. The key to good mentorship is to be there to mentor and guide, and also allow people to find their place on their own.

 

Q: Who was your mentor as you were advancing through your legal career?

A: Throughout my career, I’ve frequently found that the best people to help guide me are my peers or people who report to me. I can learn from every single one of those people.

Q: What have you done to promote women lawyers and diversity in the legal profession?

A: One thing is making sure that you put people in the right places to be successful. I’ve known a lot of very strong, capable lawyers in my career. My job is to open doors and put them in the place to succeed. I strive to give women lawyers and lawyers of color visibility and assignments that allow them to demonstrate their talents to the organization as leaders and lawyers. At Schering-Plough, when I joined there were virtually no women and no lawyers of color in the senior leadership of the law department. By the time we finished the merger with Merck, more than half of the leaders were women and people of color. We both recruited new people and developed key talent from within—people who had not been noticed because they looked different. We made a conscious effort, and it was successful. We went from 25 percent women to more than half in our law department. We recruited from a diverse slate of candidates. I also insist that outside counsel have a diverse group of lawyers working on our matters. I don’t care about the statistics of the firm; I care about who is working on my matters.

Every law firm always offers Continuing Legal Education CLE to law departments. We established a day where we ask our firms, typically three or four of our closest relationships, to present on substantive topics—health care, IP, litigation. The only presenters are women and lawyers of color who are knowledgeable in those areas. We see the people who can do the work for us, and the firms understand that this really does matter to us. Firm management gets that we’re serious about this. It’s not just a diversity day to talk about it. It’s about making sure that these lawyers are highlighted in their firms, and then we start working with those lawyers, reaching out to them to work on our matters. We help outside counsel get it.

 

Q: Why is this important to you?

A: It’s driven from a view that listening and hearing the different points of view leads to better decision-making. How can you make a good decision if you only hear one voice, one way of looking at the world?

For example, in terms of development of people, when I was at Schering-Plough, internally, we didn’t have any career-development pathway or chart. We were faced with this question, “How do we help people develop?” We started looking at what the competencies were at the time and what we needed them to be. But there was something lacking in our process. So we took a cross-section of our department, people of different ages and experience levels, and put them to work on developing this plan. The product that came out was superior because it took into account leadership behaviors such as listening ability, desire to give back to the community and commitment to diversity.

 

Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer starting his or her career?

A: Figure out why you want to be a lawyer and why it excites you. Don’t do it because you don’t have some other idea. Be open to change. Embrace change. Be prepared for change. I thought for sure I would be a litigator in law school. I pictured myself in a midsize firm, in a midsize city. I found that I loved corporate and transactional work and that excited me. I changed what I wanted to do. It was the same with going in-house. Finally, and most importantly, listen. Most lawyers have a natural tendency to tell, not listen. Even if you’re the smartest guy in the room, no one wants to hear the smartest guy talking all the time. Throughout your career, you’ll always be learning. You’ll never know everything you need to know to be the best possible lawyer. Fight your tendency to cling to the “right way” to practice law.

 

Q: What is your proudest moment as a lawyer?

A: When people who worked for me and whom I’ve helped mentor have gone on to do something great. Marshall Abbey, the GC of Baxter when I started there, had a list in his drawer of everyone who’d been at Baxter who’d gone on to be a GC at another company. I keep that same list. Those are the proudest moments. I’ve enjoyed big deals, or pieces of litigation that we won. But the moments I remember are when people I’ve worked with go on and succeed. For instance, Jan Reid, who was the corporate secretary at Baxter, left and became GC and head of HR at Solo Cup Co. It’s really cool to talk with her and share experiences. I’m proud of that like a parent.

 

Q: What is your motto?

A: I have two. My professional motto is “listen and learn.” My personal one is “treat people with dignity and respect.”  

 

Q: What other things would you like to do to help advance the careers of women and diverse lawyers?

A: I am involved with Call to Action and recently joined the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity. Rick Pallmore has been a tremendous proponent of diversity. He started this organization, which calls on both GCs and managing partners of law firms. Its mission is to keep these ideas at the forefront.

On a more personal level, I try to promote diversity by talking about it every chance I get. I was just asked to be on a panel to talk about it. Every chance I get to talk to about it externally, I take it.

Inside Walgreens, we have a culture that values diversity and inclusion. We are trying to supercharge this within the law department. I am the executive sponsor of the W-Pride group within Walgreens, and I believe that executives should be visible proponents and sponsors of diversity.

Contributing Author

Adele Nicholas

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