Marvin Levine is the chief legal officer and executive vice president for real estate investment company General Growth Properties Inc., which owns and operates shopping malls across the country.
In his six years with Chicago-based GGP, Levine has seen the company re-emerge from surviving bankruptcy to ranking on the S&P 500. But it took some work to get there between restructuring the legal department and carving out meetings just to get to know his employees as people and not attorneys.
The native New Yorker joined the company in 2011 after three decades in private practice. After working for such firms as Wachtel & Masyr and Husch Blackwell in New York, he decided to make a move to Chicago. (He now splits his time between the two cities for work and personal reasons.)
Levine recently sat down with Corporate Counsel. An edited version of the conversation follows.
Corporate Counsel: How did you land at General Growth Properties?
Marvin Levine: A good friend and former client, Sandeep Mathrani, was tapped to become the CEO of this company and he asked if I'd be willing to come on the adventure.
CC: This was your first in-house role. Were you worried about making the switch from private practice?
ML: I was at a point in my life where my kids are grown, successful on their own, and I was single at the time. I'd reached a point where I didn't have to work anymore. I'd been practicing law in real estate for more than 30 years. I figured this was a brand-new adventure and thought, why not give it a shot?
CC: And how did it work out?
ML: Since the new management team started in January 2011, we took this company from bankruptcy to making it into the S&P 500, which is a long jump. But that's what the adventure is. With all the transactions, a lot of things were passing through the legal department.
CC: What does your legal department spend the most time doing nowadays?
ML: The business of General Growth is to lease real estate. That's what we do. It's up for the legal department to get the leases done so the tenants can get in the space and pay rent. So usually the legal department would probably be a service area to handle odds and ends of a company but here the legal department is part of what the company does.
CC: So what were some of the biggest changes since when you joined GGP?
ML: When I started, I had to restructure. I found the department had too many people. There were too many people in higher positions that really weren't needed and were actually holding back other people from progressing in their jobs. When I got here there were five layers of people in the legal department. Now there are three. I've drastically flattened the team because I wanted to be more exposed to all of the people in the department. And I felt it was important to reduce the hierarchy as it were. The results have been good.
CC: Are there other things you're doing to get to know the people in the department?
ML: We have about 75 people in the legal department right now, six that directly report to me. I decided one day a week I'm going to have lunch with six or seven people in the department who don't directly report to me. We order lunch in the conference room upstairs for an hour and the only rule of the meeting is to talk about everything except work. You just get to know people, what they do, so I can tell you everybody who just got a dog, who's altering their house, whose mother-in-law won't move out, all things like that. Conversely they know all about me. They know about my family, they know about my grandchildren. I also encourage them to socialize among themselves. I don't want people coming to work putting their head down sitting in a desk and just grinding out the work. That's not a healthy work environment.
CC: What are you looking for when you hire new employees?
ML: I'm looking for the people that have a desire to get ahead, to move up, not to just sit in the desk. I have a personal assistant who does a lot of my administrative work. In my six years, she's the fourth administrative assistant. The last two still work here. They were interested in leases and in their spare time they learned about doing them, so much so that one of them is now a senior paralegal. She went to law school and has now moved up the ladder working as a leasing attorney and the other became a senior admin in the leasing department. I want people to want more. People have left here for better jobs or paying more money. It's a loss and you don't want to lose people you think are good but you want people who aspire to more. That's what I look for in people.