Part of a family of lawyers, Karen Gray knew she wanted to combine her interest in law and her interest in business. As the first person at Christie’s to hold the dual roles of general counsel and chief administrative officer, she gets to focus on both. As CAO, she has dotted line responsibility for all the support functions in the Americas region, including finance, operations, communications and human resources. As GC, she oversees all legal affairs in the Americas for Christie’s art-related activities and coordinates the delivery of all other aspects of legal and risk management services.
A cum laude graduate of Harvard Law School, Gray began her career at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, and then went in-house to Reuters America before joining Christie’s in 2008.
Recently Gray spoke with WIPL about earning the respect of the business people, negotiating regulatory issues such as the international trade in ivory and how she arrived at an international auction house without ever taking an art history class.
What first drew you to a career in the law?
Family is a bit of it—my father's brother is a lawyer, my grandfather is a lawyer and my brother is a lawyer. I also like the combination of logic and practicality that the law offers.
What has been most interesting about your current role?
I currently have a hybrid role at Christie’s as general counsel and chief administrative officer of the Americas. I get to do lot of strategic thinking on the legal side, but I also get to operate on the business side. It’s nice to have that combination. I see what the business cares about, which makes me a better lawyer.
What is the most important issue facing your company or industry?
From a legal point of view, regulatory issues. As a global company, we must consider issues like bribery, as well as cultural property issues such as importing ivory. We need to stay on top of the drumbeat and volume of laws and potential laws.
What professional accomplishment has made you most proud? There are two things. One is the team we have at Christie’s. We have a really, really solid legal team that the business looks at as business partners. Second is the ability to take on the business role. It was a high compliment that the business asked me to come in as CAO. Other companies have this dual role, but it was new to Christie’s.
Were there specific people or opportunities that helped you throughout your career? Absolutely. I have had the great fortune to have great sponsors who pushed me and helped me along and have spoken up for me.
An attorney at Cadwalader took me under his wing. At Reuters, I had a number of people who looked out for me. There were also the people on the business side at Christie’s.
Do you see a difference in how women network with and mentor other women, compared to working with men? All my sponsors have been men, interestingly. When I came in, it was as the first generation of women were becoming partners. They had to have tougher skin. I think that is changing a bit.
Have you planned out your past and next career steps, or have there been surprises along the way? I knew in law school that I wanted to be a GC. I knew I wasn’t going to be a rainmaker. I also loved the business aspect, and I can get that in-house. But I didn’t plan to be at an auction house—I didn’t take a single art-history class in college! So I was very lucky at Christie’s to get the business aspect of my career. That was totally unplanned.
How are you preparing for the next advancement in your career?
I do the same thing as always—I try to get as much experience in as many areas as I can. Now I can do that in two areas, law and business. For example, I’m learning how to set up offices from a good business and legal sense.