During his junior year of high school in 1982, Bill Weber had a bright academic future ahead of him. The Decatur, Ga., native planned to apply to three prestigious colleges, the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, but he had a problem: he had no idea how his family would be able to pay for any of them.
Then, during a trip with the Valley Forge Freedom Foundation late that school year, the course of his academic future and life would make a sharp turn. Traveling back toward Georgia, the group of students on the trip stopped off in Annapolis, Md., to visit the Naval Academy—the United States Navy’s service academy and, at the time, the most difficult school in the country to get into. Weber learned that, if he were among the fortunate few to get into the academy, his entire college tuition would be paid in full with his commitment of five years active duty post graduation. Facing exorbitant tuition bills from the other schools, Weber took a leap of faith, secured an appointment to Navy from Senator Sam Nunn and began his military career in summer 1983.
The decision set Weber on a path unimaginable to most. During college, he spent a summer on a submarine, taught marksmanship to incoming freshmen, spent another summer on a ship in the Mediterranean and taught English. After graduation, he accepted a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Marine Corps. Over the next twelve years, among many other things, he completed deployments to Okinawa, Japan and Korea as a tank platoon commander; served as a light armored infantry platoon commander during Operation Desert Shield, receiving a Bronze Star Medal for his achievements in combat; and taught new lieutenants infantry tactics at The Basic School. In this time, he also got married, had children and eventually graduated cum laude from the law school at the University of Georgia where he was a member of the Order of Barristers and won every oral advocacy award offered by the school.
Today, Weber—whose story isn’t common in the legal profession—serves as senior vice president and general counsel for telecommunications and technology company, Cbeyond.
Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?
I went to law school under the military’s Excess Leave Program, which helped pay for law school, but required that I give three years of payback time to the military when I graduated. So in 1996 when I graduated, I went to Paris Island, S.C.—where a lot of enlisted Marines go for training—and did criminal defense work. When three years were up, I decided to leave the Marines, departing as a major after twelve years of service.
Then I went back and taught at University of Georgia Law School for a year. As the school’s first Director of Advocacy, I led the moot court and mock trial programs and taught appellate law, trial practice, and military law.
The job was supposed to be half-time, so to supplement it, I opened up a private practice and took on some military cases. But—as anyone who has every worked at a law school would know—the Director of Advocacy job did not turn out to be a half-time at all, and I decided to move on.
At that point, I went into private practice at a big firm in Georgia. I was there for three years doing commercial litigation, and I was bored senseless.
When you’re doing criminal defense work, as I was in the military, one of the great things is you get a case, you work it hard, you have a trial. the trial is over, and you’re done.
Commercial litigation never seems to end and you never have a trial. Instead, you spend most of your time calling lawyers on the other side names, getting angry about the discovery process and dealing with a judge who is always angry because so much of what’s going on is so petty.
How did you end up going in-house?
Mike came calling. At the time, the telecom industry was becoming a crazy business because of changes that happened in the law in 1996. A lot of up-start competitive telecom companies were in big fights with the entrenched “Baby Bells” (regional phone companies spun-out from the old “Ma Bell” AT&T), and there was a lot of interesting litigation going on. So I entered the telecom industry and went in-house primarily because I was interested in doing more advocacy than I ever did in private practice.
Where did you go?
I went to Covad Communications. It was public at the time and headquartered in Silicon Valley, but I came in as regional counsel for the southwest region based in Atlanta.
Please tell us about your experience at Covad.
Well Covad was a fun place to work, mainly because it had a number of internal and external problems that needed solving. And in a situation like that, if you’re good at what you do, you can take on a lot of opportunities just by seizing them.
I got promoted a few times until I was leading the group of regional VPs who were responsible for all our regulatory work in 27 states. I was traveling to Covad’s headquarters in California a lot. By then, my wife and I had 6 children, ages 2 to 12. We thought about moving to California but it was just too expensive.
Then I got a call from a a friend who was a co-founder of Cbeyond. I met her through industry connections over the years. The company decided it had to hire its first in-house counsel, and it had just gone public. She thought I’d get along with the CEO, who—she told me right up front—generally disliked lawyers.
Cbeyond had a reputation as the shining star of the telecom industry. I thought I would love to work for a company that was doing so much right. I had a series of interviews and got hired—that was in 2006.
Tell me a little about your legal department today.
I came in as the first lawyer. Since then, I added a paralegal who worked with me at Covad. Then we got another lawyer, also from Covad, and an engineer who is an expert in networks and systems. Since that initial hiring spree, we’ve added one complaints specialist. That’s it.
What are your best practices for adding talent to your department?
When I was at Covad, I trusted good recruiters to bring people to me. That’s how I know Mike. He uncovered a great lawyer for me who I still work with today. Having the right kind of recruiter who can reach the right people and take the time to understand your business and what you’re looking for, that’s indispensible. My department is too small for that now, so I rely on my network.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Our biggest challenge is knowing at any given moment what’s most important. A huge contrast between my legal department as compared to departments at truly big companies is we have to have a “good enough” standard. We get to a level of certainty where we have to say “that’s good enough. We’re disposing of this issue and moving on.”
When you’re at a really big company that has tons of lawyers, they don’t have a “good enough” standard. They want certainty. We can’t afford to do that. You’re constantly making judgments and hopefully you’re right most of the time—and the vast majority of the time we are. You have to learn to evaluate business risk realistically.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
What I love most is that you are constantly being asked to learn new things, and I think this is true for both litigators and in-house counsel at smaller companies. If you’re a generalist, you constantly have new things come across your desk that you have to dig into and learn to be good at. It’s always a challenge.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
I hate to say it, but I don’t have any. I guess that sounds pretty bad, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful. Because I have worked with a lot of great lawyers. People who taught me a lot. How to work a civil case, how to do a great cross examination, how to deal with clients, how to structure an argument on appeal. But none who made me want to be them when I was older, none who inspired me to do new things or pursue a new direction for my career. So that’s a mentor to me: someone who inspires you to do more than you thought you were capable of and has a real impact on your life.
I’m not entirely sure why this is. Part of it is certainly my career path. When I graduated from law school, I was 31 with twelve years of Marine Corps experience behind me, three as an attorney. By the time I first hit a commercial litigation practice when I would have had mentors, I was 32, and I had tried more cases—by a long shot—than most of the senior partners in the firm I was working in. And I was not settled in my career choice. Maybe if I had been focused on becoming a partner I would have felt differently.
When I was in the Marines, there was never a time I couldn’t look at the people around me and find someone who was senior to me and say, “That’s who I want to be when I’m at that stage in my career.” Then I got out here, and I didn’t see that at all. I actually interviewed with a guy at a law firm who thought it was funny when he admitted he didn’t know his kids very well, but he had a lot of big clients.
How has your military background shaped your career as a lawyer?
It’s had a larger impact than anything else. I told my son, who is in the Air Force, as he was leaving for boot camp, there are two things that will happen to you during your enlistment: 1) You will experience things that are so dumb you won’t even believe an organization could allow them to happen; and 2) You will have experiences that will be the most memorable of your entire life for all the right reasons. Everyone comes together as a team. Everything works the way it’s supposed to. And you get to say to yourself, “I was part of a group of people who did something great.”
One thing I got out of it was how an organization that is properly put together should work: How information should flow, how much information you need to make a decision, understanding when you have the confidence to make decisions. It allows you to put your ego in check because you quickly recognize even the most junior people may spot problems with your plan and they have to feel empowered to talk about it.
You develop this ability to form teams that find working together rewarding, that cover for each others’ gaps and reinforce each others’ strengths. That’s an experience that’s harder to get in a civilian organization than it ought to be.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be the GC of a company someday?
Learn accounting and finance. I had nothing. I had to read a bunch of books to develop enough of a background to be effective. Much of the advice I am asked to provide is advice about decisions the company is making specifically because of financial circumstances. If you can’t understand balance sheets and how to read them, you can’t give good advice to the company.
It’s also important to recognize you are going to have to call on outside assistance on a regular basis. You have to be prepared to rely on other people and put together a team to close gaps in your own experience or background.
Tell me more about your involvement with the Georgia Innocence Project.
I’ve been involved for four years and have been the chairman of the board since October 2013. Civil rights is a real focus and interest of mine.
We happen to have a lot of innocent people in jail today, and we’re dedicated to using scientific tools, primarily DNA, to find people in Georgia who are improperly in jail and get them released. We are doing it at a rate of about one every other year for the past eight years. On average, these people were in jail for more than 25 years for crimes they absolutely did not commit. It’s both rewarding and depressing.