Curt Kramer finds a surprisingly satisfying career as a senior legal executive

D7C_3855Even as a child, Curt Kramer knew he would go to law school, but never really bought into the idea of actually practicing law. His father—a successful lawyer with his own, small private practice in Boston—impressed upon his son that the profession was a noble one and instilled in Kramer an appreciation for the legal system.

“It can take your kids away from you, it can put you in jail, it can tell you how much in taxes to pay,” Kramer recalls thinking about the law. “So I figured, if there’s any schmuck I’m going to listen to out there, it’s going to be me.”

Despite the fact that Kramer was reluctant to commit himself to a career in law, he graduated from Quinnipiac School of Law in Connecticut in 1995. And after receiving an LLM from Georgetown University, he did what he thought he wouldn’t do—he joined a Washington, D.C., law firm.

While Kramer slogged his way through a couple of law firms, eventually moving back to his hometown of Boston where his wife was finishing up her medical residency, he grew more and more uninspired practicing law. One day, he announced to his wife that he was quitting law, instead he planned to sell hot dogs outside of Fenway Park. When she responded that she wanted to move back to the Midwest, he said, “Fine! I’ll sell hot dogs outside of Wrigley Field.”

But before he had time to stock up on mustard and set up his cart, a former colleague from one of Kramer’s previous firms caught wind of Kramer’s desire to leave the legal practice. The two had a discussion that would set Kramer on a course that lead to his current position as associate general counsel and corporate secretary of Navistar, a U.S.-based international truck manufacturer.

So how did you go from being determined to sell hot dogs to sports fans to a senior legal position at Navistar?

A good friend of mine, Jodi Dottori, who at the time was an associate GC at Priceline.com, said to me, “Before you stop practicing law, you need to look for an in-house position.” He said, “I know you, Curt. I know what it’s like in house. And I know you’ll like it. You need to look at it.”

So then a recruiter called me—and that recruiter was Mike Evers—about a position at International Truck and Engine [Navistar]. I met with them, the company made me an offer, and I started as the lowest level associate. In fact, I was No. 2 on the pecking order, but No. 1 didn’t work out. I started working here in January 2002, and I have been here ever since, and have worked my way up the ladder over the past 12 years. Through luck and good timing, I am now the corporate secretary of the company.

Tell me a little about your legal department?

It’s changed a lot since I started. We’ve restructured several times and lost a lot of people over the years. There has been a lot of change over the past two years, specifically. With that came growing pains; people have left and we’ve seen reductions in force. We reorganized the legal department again to address the current state of the business.

Aside from our IP group, our legal department is currently divided into two primary groups—the GC is Steve Covey and under Steve there are two associate GCs. One runs our commercial operations group; she has six or eight attorneys under her. They do commercial, regulatory, dealer stuff. The other associate GC is me. In my group, I have a handful of lawyers—six or seven. We do your M&A, corporate stuff—securities, financing, tax. I also manage the lawyers in our foreign jurisdictions: Brazil, China, Canada, Mexico, and those attorneys at the local operations report up to me.

We have a total of 20 to 25 attorneys in the U.S. and another nine in foreign jurisdictions.

What are your best practices for adding talent to your department? 

Candidates need to have the core skill set. You don’t get in the door unless you can talk the talk and know the language. Whether they learn that through private practice or in-house—we won’t hire someone just out of law school. They need to have some experience. Preferably, in-house experience. The in-house practice is a much better way of practicing law. Lawyers are so much closer to the business. All things being equal, we like to have people with in-house experience. If they don’t, as long as they have the core knowledge base, they can adapt.

Secondly, they need to fit culturally. You look for people who “get it” and will fit into the group. Life is about timing and relationships. If you don’t have the ability to form good relationships, you aren’t going to succeed. Sometimes a square peg doesn’t fit into a round hole—and we don’t want to force it. There are a lot of different cultures and a lot of different companies and a lot of different law firms—so you have to find the right fit. Now, you don’t know until you know. You just have to go on your gut, and make a decision and hope it’s right.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

I think when you become senior management, the hardest thing is just inspiring and managing people. A lot of different people have different peculiarities. What motivates one person doesn’t necessarily motivate another. You have to find what motivates people, what gets the best out of people. It’s often challenging, and they don’t teach it in law school.

It’s like coaching. Coaches have to figure out how to make a team work together. No one will be successful unless they operate as a team. As a manager, you strive to do that. When you’re working together on the court, it has to be team team team. But when you’re off the court, you need to focus on individual individual individual. I want to see success for those that work for me on an individual basis. But at the end of the day, we’re a team and need to work together and have that bond and cohesiveness.

The other challenge is, when you’re in-house you need to make decisions on imperfect information. You don’t have the luxury to sit back and think about it. When your business guys come to you, you have to go with what you think. These business guys want information now, and you need to be comfortable with that and be comfortable with the fact that you’re giving advice on imperfect information. Some people don’t sit well with that.

What do you love most about being a lawyer?

As anyone that goes in-house will say, “no billable hours” is great. As Winston Churchill said, “Democracy is the worst form of government but it’s the best one we have.” The billable hour is a terrible business model, but it’s the best one the legal field can come up with. No one likes keeping track of time, but I haven’t had to for many years now and it’s really great.

I also like being part of a business. I’m walking down the street, and I see one of our trucks roll by—and I know we’re making trucks people are using. We have businesses that are employing people. It’s very satisfying to be even a small part of helping those products get produced.

I also love the variety of the in-house practice. You’re so close to the business, things get thrown at you so fast. You have to make decisions and dispense advice. It is never dull.

Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.

I’ve had a few. My current GC Steve Covey, who when the previous corporate secretary left in 2007, promoted me to that position [corporate secretary]. He has been my boss directly for seven years, and before that, he was my boss’s boss and I reported to him then indirectly. So since 2004, for 10 years, I have worked for Steve either directly or indirectly. He has been a mentor for me by simply learning how he thinks and seeing how he acts.

Our former CEO Dan Ustian is someone I respect a lot. He had a level of can-do optimism, which was inspiring. And the friend of mine that convinced me to go in-house, Jodi Dottori. He inspired me a lot, and I have a lot of respect for him. If it weren’t for him, I wouldn’t be in-house.

Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs?

There was an on-boarding thing we had at Navistar called “Climate for Performance.” It was good leadership training. It had things that stick with me to date, one being the idea of the “Shadow of a Leader.” It means, whether you know it or not, you’re casting a shadow and people are looking at it. How do you want it to be portrayed? You need to be thinking about that.

Some say leadership is learned, others say you’re born with it. I don’t know. All I know is, if you turn around and no one is following you, you ain’t leadin’! I hope when I turn around, people are following me.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a senior-level lawyer in a company someday?

First, for anybody doing anything, you’ve got to have passion for what you’re doing. You have to enjoy it. My former CEO, [Dan Ustian] said, “If you aren’t having fun, what are you doing?” You won’t be good at it. Find that one thing in life that you love, and whatever it is, do it.

Secondly, I never wanted to be a “lawyer” and now I love being a lawyer, so don’t focus on titles and pay. Focus on taking pride in what you do, enjoying what you do and doing the best job you can do. Once you get those under your belt, the rest will follow.

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