A native of New Orleans, Jonathan M. Gottsegen made his mind up when he was a child that he would never leave. So it was no surprise when—after spending four years in Atlanta studying political science in undergraduate school at Emory University—he made his way back to the Big Easy.
By then, Gottsegen knew he wanted a life in business, and he also knew law school was the perfect gateway to achieving that goal.
“I felt having a foundation in corporate law and tax, finance and securities would give me the structural backing to further a career in business,” explains Gottsegen, who attended Tulane University Law School.
But it was a chain-smoking, bow-tie wearing Southern professor at Tulane who “waxed poetically about securities regulation” that cemented Gottsegen’s interest in law and helped lay the foundation for a successful career in various legal sectors.
Despite his intentions never to leave New Orleans, straight out of law school Gottsegen found himself headed for Washington, D.C., where he landed in the corporate finance division of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This was the first of several highprofile legal positions that would not only take him to various parts of the country, but also prepare him for a successfulin-house career and lead him to his current position as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary of United Rentals Inc., the largest equipment rental company in the world.
Q: Tell me about your time at the SEC.
A: I first worked in investor assistance but spent the bulk of my time in one of the principle divisions, corporation finance. That division was a buzz of activity in the mid-1990s. And as a young lawyer, it was a wonderful place to have a front-row seat for scores of interesting transactions. I delved into so much disclosure and shareholder activism that I developed a great framework to be in-house.
Q: Why did you leave the SEC?
A: The SEC was wonderful training, and I spent so much time there that I had a great framework, but the perspective is limited. I knew if I wanted to broaden my experience, I needed to spend some time in a law firm.
Q: What attracted you to in-house work after the law firm?
A: I still had a desire to be a part of a business. What is so enjoyable for me is being a part of a business that allows you the opportunity to contribute to its success. It’s hard to have that sense of common pursuit in most law firm structures.
Q: You’ve been in-house at Time Warner Inc., The Home Depot Inc. and now United Rentals. How did all of this play out?
A: I had spent roughly four or five years with the firm, and you kind of know when you’ve reached a point when you want to go in a different direction. For me, stepping forward was working for a business in-house.
I began my in-house career as a junior securities lawyer at Time Warner in the corporate office—an ideal in-house position. As you transition, you develop a greater sense of ownership.
After Time, I was contacted about a more senior role at Home Depot. That included more finance work, more board work and secretarial work. Fast forward five years and I was contacted by United Rentals, and it was undergoing a transformation with the executive team. The opportunity to work and lead the legal function was very compelling.
Q: These three companies seem very different from one another. Was there a common element that attracted you to each?
A: If anything, the elements were not in common at all. Time was a more mature business in the process of scaling down. Home Depot was in the process of scaling up, and United Rentals had experienced a change in leadership. The three companies were experiencing different factors—each making for a very rewarding experience as an in-house lawyer.
Q: Tell me about your current legal department and your team.
A: We have a group of 12—nine lawyers and three legal assistants. We are generally split among practice areas—I encourage everyone to develop working knowledge across the board. It benefits the business and ourselves to be able to address a cross section of the business.
I heard Geoffrey Kelly, the retried GC of Coke, speak recently, and he said he always wanted his lawyers to be respected, but not loved. That is very true. They can only engender respect if they deliver and provide counsel across the spectrum. Knowing enough to help the client identify what is important and what isn’t goes a long way.
Q: What’s a typical day in your life?
A: Nonstop madness, which can be incredibly varied. Today, for example, I have counseled on some business litigation, issues related to our capital structure, a matter with a supplier, some of our compliance documents and policies, and started planning for the next series of board meetings. And it’s only 2:30 p.m.
Q: What do you find to be most rewarding?
A: Providing my clients—anyone from an operator in the field, the CEO, member of the board—with prompt, well-reasoned, practical advice. If I can emerge from a meeting or finish a conference call and know that I have done that, that is very rewarding.
Q: What are some of your challenges?
A: As a GC, your days are very full, and it is important to develop an understanding and sense of balance of what is important compared to what is less important and spend your time appropriately. Know when to be strategic and when to be tactical.
Q: Did you have a mentor as you were growing up in your legal career?
A: I rely on mentors at this stage in my career as much as I did growing up. Someone with experience and someone you have a good rapport with can be invaluable. I have some that are lawyers and some that are nonlawyers, who bring a perspective that lawyers don’t have.
Q: What advice would you give to a young lawyer wanting a successful career in-house?
A: Spend time in a law firm and try to get experience doing different things. Ideally, as a young lawyer, rotate among practice areas. The more you learn, the more exposure you have, the more confident you are and the more you can contribute to an in-house legal department.
Q: If you weren’t a lawyer, what would your dream job be?
A: Quarterback for the New Orleans Saints. But if Drew Brees happens to pick up this edition of InsideCounsel, he should know he shouldn’t fear for his job.