Growing up in Indianapolis, E.M. Lysonge (or “E” as many people refer to him) had his career sights set several hundred miles to the east—with dreams of serving as a stock broker on Wall Street. Lysonge knew it would take hard work coupled with academic excellence to make it to the Big Apple, not to mention a degree from a highly respected university. So, for high school, he set out on a plan that would offer him the best chance at landing a spot in a top university.
Attending Indianapolis’ respected magnet schools—Arsenal Technical High School and Shortridge Junior High School—E focused on academics, majoring in Arabic studies. And along the way, his interests shifted from the world of finance to the world of law.
“I have a passion for writing and expressing myself through words, and the life of a stock broker just doesn’t cater to that,” Lysonge explains. “I realized I was more attracted to the work of law.”
After graduating from Fisk University, Lysonge made his way to Vanderbilt Law School—his first step in a successful legal career that would lead him to the vice president, legal affairs position at Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI), one of the most well-known entertainment companies in the world (with assets such as the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, along with casino properties in Maine, Mississippi, Louisiana, Florida, and Ohio, as well as social and mobile games distributed through its subsidiary, Big Fish, most notable for its property, Gummy Drop!).
How did your interest shift from finance to law?
I was on the debate team in college traveling around the country. All of the major universities participated in these debates and frequently we debated against students at Harvard and Yale, and many of those students were going off to law school. My debate coach really encouraged me to think about going into the law. He thought my skills lent themselves well to the practice of law. My coach made it a reality, and I could see the strength of my ability to communicate and that gave me the sense that I would succeed in that industry.
Tell me about your career path immediately after law school?
That was interesting. While I was in law school, I worked for the Tennessee Trial Lawyers Association. At the time, it was the largest, most active lobbying organization in Tennessee. I worked as a lobbyist legislative assistant throughout law school. When I went back to Indianapolis for the summer, I worked as a summer associate for Baker & Daniels doing a whole host of things in litigation and employment.
Then, during my second year, I was offered a position as a lawyer with that firm. After my second year, I worked more with the government affairs practice—they liked that I had a lobbying background. When I returned to Indianapolis after I graduated, I worked for the firm’s government affairs team. I was the first associate hired into that team, which was driven by my experience with legislative affairs.
What interested you in going in-house? What was your first in-house position?
One of the funny things about law firms is that when you’re hired, they’re so rigid. You’re there to do one specific thing. There’s no opportunity to build a rounded skill set. If you’re a litigator, you litigate. No options to build a multi-disciplined practice.
So when a couple of guys I went to law school with launched a small law practice that focused on litigation and municipal finance, they wanted someone with a municipal relations background—someone who had a good relationship with the mayor’s office. I saw that they could offer a multifaceted practice so when they approached me to leave Baker & Daniels and be a solo practitioner with them, I took the opportunity. I did a whole host of things: litigation, municipal bonds, white collar defense, and real estate.
One of my real estate clients was doing development work with the Simon Property Group. After closing that deal, I had an opportunity to meet the head of new development at Simon and had a great conversation with him. He offered me an in-house position with the company. He enjoyed working with me and wanted me to join their leasing and development team.
How did you end up at Churchill Downs?
When I was at Baker & Daniels, one of my clients was Centaur Gaming, which was in partnership with CDI. In 2009, CDI was looking for an in-house lawyer to come to Louisville to help expand their legal department. I got a call from someone in my network who thought I had a great mixture of skills and was suited for the position. I was interested, so I had a conversation with CDI’s GC, at the time, and was offered a position.
Please tell me how your role and/or the department may have changed since you joined?
I joined CDI in a position that was created for me by the CEO. I was offered the position of senior director of Churchill Downs Racetrack (CDRT). The new president, of CDRT, was looking to add to his leadership team so the job was created for me to work for him as he put together his leadership team.
For about 11 months, I held that title, then I was promoted to VP of State Government Relations and led that practice for the company in the states in which we did business. Then I joined the legal department in this role in 2012.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Managing expectations of senior leaders. In a world where we operate in gray areas, sometimes expectations are that you will win every case because you have good facts, great law, you’re able to measure expectations and live up to senior leadership expectations. That is a big challenge. That is in many cases sometimes hard to achieve.
To be able to meet the expectations of your senior executives, a win may not mean that you win a case. In everyday life, so much is driven by wins and losses. In many cases in the business world, it isn’t so black and white. Sometimes there are silver linings when you aren’t deemed the victor.
Meeting and exceeding clients’ expectations in less than stellar fact patterns: That’s what we get paid to do.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
I love the challenge of helping people resolve disputes in ways that are in many cases beneficial to both sides. I don’t revel in being adversarial or winning at all costs. An attorney that’s molded in that fashion from an in-house perspective will not succeed. You need to help close a transaction that everyone feels good about. That’s what caters to companies that are able to grow.
You are known as a proponent of social media use. How do you incorporate social media into your work and career?
We live in an increasingly “connected” world. As we receive and process information more in real-time, on a global scale, through social media, it is increasing more important to expand who you know. I consider every day to be a school day. Each day provides us the unique opportunity to learn from one another and grow as professionals and human-beings. To that end, I use social media (e.g., Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest), to stay informed on legal and non-legal trends that could impact Churchill Downs’ business operations, from sources both in and out of my network. I also use social media to expand my network and profile. I take every opportunity to share my LinkedIn page, ekumenelysonge, with current and would-be connections with whom I correspond via email or through social media portals. In my mind, social media and being connected is no longer optional, it’s a way of life. We must embrace this cultural shift as the new way to learn, live, and communicate in the world.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
I have had a lot of great bosses. My current boss, Alan Tse, has been a great mentor. He has allowed me to grow as an in-house practitioner and to add to my skill set. I consider him to be a mentor and a great asset.
I also worked with Ron Brown, the general counsel of Pedcor, a development company I worked for prior to joining Churchill Downs. He was tremendous in teaching me how not to kill deals and how to make deals succeed. He has done a lot in helping me, over my career, learn how to move out of the way in many cases.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in an organization someday?
First, I encourage them to spend a lot of time becoming technically proficient in a number of areas. More and more legal departments are going to a model where they’re comprised of generalists rather than one practice area. Be well rounded. As a great practitioner of the law, you have to know how to think critically about issues; not think in black or white but think in the gray.
Get the skill set early on to help you understand how business people think. They don’t think in a very analytical way; they have goals. And they need to achieve those goals. So they are driven by numbers and in many cases we have to, as practitioners, understand how to help them achieve those goals and not run afoul of the law.