The energy field is always moving and shaking, but ConocoPhillips feels comfortable with an in-house veteran like Janet Langford Kelly in charge. Kelly has worked in a variety of fields in her career, including the retail and food industries, but she says that working at ConocoPhillips has given her some of the greatest challenges —and rewards—of her in-house career. InsideCounsel recently asked Kelly to explain how to achieve success in such a demanding position and provide advice for young in-house lawyers who wish to reach her level. Below is our exchange:
Q: How has your idea of an in-house lawyer’s job has evolved between your first in-house position to now?
The natural progression of any lawyer is from thinking that your job is about issues to thinking your job is to assess which issues are important and figuring that out. I think that in house, there’s an extra premium on being able to do that. You’re much closer to the business than an outside lawyer, so you’re expected to know the legal implications of an issue as it relates to the actual business. I didn’t know that when I started.
Q: How much integration do you currently have with the C-suite? Do the executive and legal departments interact heavily?
I think we have huge integration. In fact, of all the companies I’ve worked at, this is the most integrated. In the energy business, everything the company does involves the law. Every project that we undertake is a joint venture because there are such large-scale capital commitments, long timeframes, that even the biggest companies don’t take them on their own.
And a lot of times, the law department is tasked with saying, “Hold on, I’m not comfortable,” and the CEO has told me personally that he hugely values that role exercised responsibly. You can’t do it every day—if you do you should probably find another company—but having the trust of the business people is where the law department really has value.
Q: Coming from a variety of different fields, what has made working at ConocoPhillips different?
Now, at ConocoPhillips, there’s a broader ability to add value to the business. One of the reasons I love this job is that every big issue you read about in the paper—climate change, fracking, balance of trade, exporting oil—they all cross my desk every day. For me, I would say what’s unique about ConocoPhillips is the breadth of the canvass I have to paint on daily.
Q: You worked as outside counsel before moving in-house. Did you learn anything in that capacity that you brought to a corporate setting?
As a deal lawyer, I was responsible for the fate of the deal, getting it done or not getting it done if there was a reason for that. But you’re dealing with a lot of people who don’t report to you; people can either help you or not help you, it’s pretty much up to them. The most valuable lesson I learned outside is how to manage relationships where you’re not in charge. It helps to be a collegial person that people want to help. If you call at 10 p.m., people are more likely to pick up the phone for someone they like.
Q: What advice would you give young in-house counsel trying to rise to your level of GC?
Work really hard to learn the business inside-out, that’s an advantage you have coming from inside. Be collegial, someone that people want to be around. And, in truth, there’s a lot of luck in being at the right place at the right time, at an age where you’re accomplished enough at a place with an opening. Assess whether that’s going to happen at a company or not. I don’t think people always should necessarily aspire to be a GC—there are strengths and weaknesses to all positions—but if that’s your goal, you should have a realistic eye around whether the business and people around you are going to wind up making that happen.