Your Unaverage Joe: Cummins Deputy GC discusses his successful legal career

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Joe Perkins, Deputy GC and Legal Quality Champion, Cummins

Growing up in Richmond, Ind., to hard-working parents, Joe Perkins may initially come off as your average … well … Joe.

But Perkins’ life took shape in a way most Midwesterners—or anyone, for that matter—would only dream of. With parents who always encouraged him to do well in anything he worked on, Perkins excelled in high school. So much so, in fact, his academic achievements caught the attention of one of his teachers who encouraged Perkins to apply to Ivy League colleges.

After high school, Perkins found himself packing his bags and heading to New Jersey to begin his freshman year at Princeton University. “The day I got accepted was really exciting for my family,” Perkins says. “My parents, although hard-working folks, never went to a four-year college, and here I had the chance to do that—and at such a well-respected school.” Particularly fond of issues around public policy, Perkins studied politics at Princeton, and took some classes at its acclaimed Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs.

Not surprisingly—and again through the encouragement of his father—Perkins decided law school would be his next move upon graduating from Princeton. With the help of one of his undergraduate professors, Perkins decided the University of Virginia School of Law would be the right fit.

After graduating, Perkins made his way back to the Midwest, practicing law at Locke Reynolds (which has since been acquired by Frost Brown Todd) for a couple of years before landing the role of lead litigator for the then-newly elected mayor of Indianapolis, Steve Goldsmith. It was a terrific learning experience, and this as well as other career steps in the process would ultimately lead Perkins to take the role of Deputy General Counsel for the Americas and Legal Quality Champion at Cummins, a Fortune 500 global manufacturing company.

What happened after you left the mayor’s office?

The work I did with the mayor’s office was very fulfilling and interesting. I left after two years and went back into private practice, joining a law firm working on complex litigation matters.

But I had this thought rattling around in my brain that was really influenced by my time in the mayor’s office. During that time, I interacted with business leaders across the city and across the state of Indiana and I realized I really wanted to transition my career from being a litigator, which was the career path I was on, to being more of a business counseling lawyer. I was just about to approach my partners at the law firm about changing from litigation to business when I received a call from a recruiter about an opportunity with Cummins.

The timing was perfect, and I jumped at the chance to interview with Cummins, and really thought I could take my skill set as a commercial litigator and apply it to the business context.

Tell me about your transition to Cummins.

The transition to Cummins was exciting. I had the opportunity to become a transactional lawyer for a great company. But, I had a steep learning curve to quickly learn the skill set of a transactional lawyer, while also learning about the business, and developing new relationships with my legal colleagues, and business people. I could use many metaphors to describe the experience. The most accurate is drinking from a fire hose.

It looks like your role has evolved a bit over the years. Please tell me about that.

I’ve been here for 18 years. When I joined the company, I joined as a corporate counsel generalist but in a business counseling role. I drafted contracts and supported various contract negotiations, worked with our distribution channel and used that time to learn the business as I was practicing law.

My roles with the company have evolved as the company grew and evolved. I have been fortunate enough to have some opportunities in the department as well as outside the department.

My first was a dual role: I was named director of government affairs but kept my role as counsel. I became sole lobbyist for the company in Washington, D.C., and had the opportunity to do some work on Capitol Hill with our congressional delegation and regulatory agencies.

Then a few years later, the long-time director of labor relations at the company announced that she was retiring and I was approach by the vice president of human resources about being the backfill for that position because she knew I had practiced labor and employment law. I ended up getting offered the role of director of labor relations. That was very different, I completely left legal and went into HR and did a lot of strategic work, managing relations with the workforce, went through some collective bargaining agreement negotiations, and it was a pretty interesting job to have.

How did you like being in a position outside of the law department?

Well, I did that for a couple years, and then I realized I really missed practicing law. Fortunately, I had some conversations with the GC at the time and was able to move back into a senior counsel role in legal. As I was moving into that role, the leader of our power generation business for the Americas wanted a lawyer dedicated to his business and I became dedicated to that business in the Americas and eventually became the lead attorney for that business.

Before that, there was one significant event for me that in my mind was very influential for the rest of my career: The business was struggling to understand litigation liability and risk down in Brazil, so I was sent to investigate. I came back and reported to our business leaders and GC a thorough download of the issue and proposed solution. That was a defining moment, it was when in my mind the whole notion of not only being a good lawyer but also one that helps a business define and solve problems became clear. And it has defined my career ever since. Shortly after that, I was put in charge of legal matters in Latin America for the company and still do that even after all these years.

After being the Americas legal counsel for the power generation business, I was named lead attorney for the global business unit, was on that business leadership team and had global leadership responsibilities. I did that for about six years, then I was named lead attorney for the engine business unit, which is our largest business unit, and served on that leadership team and had global responsibility for legal matters for that unit. That leads up to my current role as Legal Quality Champion and Deputy GC for the Americas.

What is a Legal Quality Champion?

My role is to drive continuous improvement throughout the legal function across the globe. I try to ensure that we have capable processes across the global legal organization and with those in place, our legal team can perform their roles better, faster and at the global world class level you would expect from a legal team in a large company. We work constantly on process improvement and project management for the infrastructure of the legal function.

Please tell me a little about your legal department. How many lawyers and legal staff?

We have about 55 attorneys right now and we have legal offices in Mexico, Brazil, China, India, South Africa, the U.K., Australia, Singapore and the UAE. In my role as the Americas Deputy GC, I am responsible for the work in the U.S. and Mexico, which services Central America and the Caribbean, as well as the office in Brazil, which services all of South America.

Our department is organized in three ways. We have lawyers dedicated to business unit work, we have lawyers who are functional experts, and we have regional lawyers.

Has it changed much since you joined?

It’s a lot different than when I joined 18 years ago. Then, I was one of six lawyers in U.S. and nine around the globe. As the company has grown, the law department has done the same.

What are your best practices for adding talent to your department?  How have you gone about it?

When we are thinking about our annual plan and headcount, it always starts with the business strategy of the four business units. So we take the time to review those strategies and talk to the business leaders. Then we take that knowledge and align the legal strategy with the business strategy, and that helps us define where our skill gaps are and where we need to help support the business. Then we build our recruiting plan around that. Then you have a very solid business reason for bringing on talent.

The other thing that’s really important to us is making sure we have a diverse legal department. Diversity is one of our company’s core values and one we fully embrace. We always have that in mind when recruiting people.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

One of my biggest challenges relates to the quality champion role. It’s not very common for law departments to have a quality champion. When you think of manufacturing, that makes sense, you have to drive quality through everything you do.

The challenge is to create capable processes and push them across a global organization. Lawyers are always busy. We’re resource constrained and we have to be creative in making our lawyers lives better so they have good processes to work in so they can do their jobs better.

What do you love most about being a lawyer? Your job at Cummins specifically?

When it comes to being a lawyer, I really enjoy the variety of the work. I have enjoyed the types of work my legal background has taken me into.

That could be true for Cummins as well. At Cummins I love the global nature of our work. As an in-house lawyer, I have always enjoyed those moments when I can work closely with the business, think through its strategy, and set strategy, then use the legal skills and legal function to help the business achieve its growth targets and objectives.

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

Being at Cummins, I have been fortunate enough to have good mentors along the way. A couple come to mind. One is our former CEO Tim Solso. Being able to work closely with him, he taught me a lot about being a good leader. Working closely with a CEO of his caliber is just invaluable.

I work closely with our GC Sharon Barner in my current role. She teaches me something every day. She continuously challenges me to be a better and stronger leader, and that’s terrific.

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

I’ve been fortunate enough here at Cummins to be in two of our internal leadership programs. One is our Leadership Development program and one is our Leadership Culture series.Both of those programs helped me improve my leadership skills. One of the key things is that leadership skills are something you always have to improve and you can always get better at it. They taught me how to manage global legal teams. I have been able to take the teachings from those courses and have a team that spans across several countries that still feels cohesive.

The other thing is if you’re going to motivate a team, you have to understand that there is no one size fits all solution. You really have to think about leadership as a full contact sport. You have to understand your team as professionals and people, and that’s how you develop the relationships to be a good coach and mentor.

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

First, being a good lawyer is a good start. But if you really want to be effective as an in-house business attorney, you have to take the time to understand business strategy. Then you can apply your legal skill set to support that strategy. That makes you effective and makes the business leaders trust you as a counselor and adviser because you understand what they’re trying to achieve.

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