Going from x-ray technician to Executive Vice president, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Tampico Beverages, Inc., a multinational beverage company, it’s safe to say Pedro DeJesus chose the road less traveled.
As far as childhood education goes, DeJesus was far from typical. He started elementary school a year early, and by the time he was finishing up second grade, his teacher informed Pedro’s parents that he was too advanced for third. He jumped immediately into fourth grade.
A high school graduate at only 16, DeJesus really didn’t know what he wanted to do next. So he enrolled in a local community college on Chicago’s Northwest side and studied to become an x-ray technologist. After obtaining an associate’s degree, DeJesus worked for several years as an x-ray tech, but got the itch to do something different. A stroll past the Chicago Mercantile Exchange provided the answer. For the next 18 months, DeJesus made minimum wage working as a runner on the floor of the Merc during the day, while continuing to moonlight as an x-ray technician. He leveraged that entry-level job into a greater opportunity and eventually landed at one of the busiest foreign exchange trading desks on the floor, trading British Pound and other foreign currency futures for the next four years. But still, something wasn’t right.
“When I was at the Merc, I would see these traders who were doing well, then suddenly something changed—the economy dropped, there was a downsizing in their company—and they suddenly found themselves with no readily transferable skills,” DeJesus explains. “They didn’t go through a formal education process—they learned the trade, excelled in it and made a career out of it, just like I was doing. I realized I didn’t want to be in that position down the road.”
So DeJesus set out on another career change. This time, to one that complemented his skill set and involved higher education. His next stop: night school at Roosevelt University for a bachelor’s degree while working his day job at the Merc, followed immediately by full-time studies in law school at Northwestern University law school.
Why did you decide to go to law school?
I liked reading, writing and speaking, and law seemed to be complementary to my skills. I had also saved enough money to support myself through much of law school, so I made it work. It was interesting because I had spent so much time in school younger than all the other students around me. In law school, it was the opposite. I started at 29, and by then I had a much stronger sense of what I wanted for myself and my career. I was much more focused.
How did your career progress immediately after law school?
I started working at a firm called Rudnick & Wolf, which merged many times over and is now part of DLA Piper. After a few years at Rudnick, there was an opportunity to join a technology startup in Chicago. I thought if I were going to do something risky, I would do it early in my career because I could always bounce back. So I did just that and saw the rise and fall of the tech boom in the early 2000s, which was great. I gained a world of learning through that experience. When that unwound, I went back to a small law firm that eventually merged into McGuire Woods.
From there I learned about an in-house opportunity at IRi, a Chicago-based information services company, and I took a position there as their VP and Corporate Counsel.
Why did you end up going in-house?
I had so many years in the workforce, and I realized I was a fish out of water at a law firm. The law firm model didn’t make sense to me from a professional advancement perspective. A lawyer sits there for eight, nine, 10 years for the privilege of becoming partner. Then you’re there for a few more years and are expected to bring in a substantial amount of business, which is incredibly difficult for a younger attorney to accomplish. And then, if you aren’t able to meet the firm’s goals, after 10 or 15 years, regardless of your tenure, you could still have a very difficult time justifying your existence. I didn’t understand why anyone would put themselves in that position.
How did you end up at Tampico?
I wasn’t actively looking at the time but I heard about the position through word of mouth. I always had that goal of getting the top job as a company GC, and I didn’t know when would be the right time. It was an example of opportunity-meets-preparation. My skill set was complementary to what they were looking for combined with being at the right place at the right time.
How did working at a law firm first benefit your in-house career?
For all the negatives associated with a big law firm, the one thing you can’t question is the training. It lays this great legal foundation for your legal career. You can do a deep dive into a particular area of law that, quite frankly, you don’t have time to do in-house because of the pace of the business and the resources available. In-house, your ability to be a generalist and business strategist is a much more valuable skill set.
Please tell me a little about your legal department.
I came into a department in disarray. It consisted of a single GC and a paralegal. There wasn’t a lot of structure in place. Now, the department consists of me as the General Counsel, a senior counsel based in Chicago and a corporate counsel in Brazil, where we have a corporate office and manufacturing facility.
What are your best practices for adding talent to your department? How have you gone about it?
We are a relatively small department so we haven’t done a ton of legal hiring. When we have, finding a talented candidate hasn’t been an issue. And even if we’re not looking I get inquiries all the time.
My goal is to find a candidate that can excel at multitasking and thinking strategically, that can shift gears very quickly, that has great communication and interpersonal skills, and that can exercise superior judgment in a very compressed time frame with a limited set of facts. Finding that candidate involves getting to know them through multiple interviews in various settings and getting input from other internal parties who have different perspectives than I have as the GC.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Managing the international business is always really challenging. Internationally you aren’t only dealing with a different set of rules but, in many cases, a completely different paradigm. The pace at which things move is different, the expectations of the parties involved are different, cultural norms are different, and getting to the right result isn’t typically a straight line and doesn’t follow that traditional set of legal rules.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
I love the ability to make a meaningful impact on the business, to be able to add strategic thinking to corporate decision making, and being a part of a team that moves an organization in one direction. Those things give me a great amount of personal and professional satisfaction.
Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs?
No, I haven’t been involved in any professional leadership programs. I was, however, involved in a a leadership training program called the Metropolitan Leadership Institute early in my career. They focus on promoting civic action and involvement, and seeking out different opportunities to engage in a broader public dialog.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in a company someday?
Law firm training is always important. It lays a solid foundation. And the ability to multitask and think strategically. When you’re in-house, you have to be able to shift gears quickly, communicate effectively and have excellent interpersonal skills. Great in-house lawyers also need to be able to exercise superior judgment in a very compressed time frame with a limited set of facts. Not every judgment call you make has to be right, but you need to make the right calls consistently on the big strategic choices. How well you are able to do that depends on your ability to scan the horizon and ask the right questions.