Personal advocate: Meredith Ritchie from paralegal to general counsel

MRitchieChicago-native Meredith Ritchie had her sights set on a career in broadcast journalism. Growing up in the north shore suburbs, Ritchie graduated from New Trier High School and headed to New York, where she attended a small liberal arts institution, Hamilton College.

Just as she did in high school, Ritchie thrived as a student at Hamilton. She spent her junior year studying in Paris, where she mastered French. Returning home to Chicago the following summer, Ritchie landed an internship with a suburban radio station, then took the following semester as “independent study” when she landed a second radio station internship at Chicago’s WLS. When she returned to Hamilton the next semester, she started her own radio show, Mainstreams, on which she and her co-host interviewed local businesspeople and professors about their work and careers. There was no question; Ritchie was already building a successful career as a broadcast journalist.

But after graduation, when it was time to look for a job, reality struck. For a successful start in radio, Ritchie needed to focus on smaller markets, and the idea of living in a small town—away from her beloved Windy City—just wasn’t appealing. That’s when fate stepped in.

Ritchie took a sharp left in her career path when she accepted a position as a paralegal with a small business law firm in Chicago. Very quickly, she became interested in the work she was doing and being involved in the practice of law. Her boss and mentor—Henry Synek—had taken note of Ritchie’s knack for the profession and encouraged her to go to law school. Two months after taking the LSAT, Ritchie started studying law in DePaul University College of Law’s night program.

Since then, she has not looked back. Ritchie’s successful legal career has now spanned a couple of decades, taking her from private practice to the government sector to in-house positions and ultimately landing her at the top spot in Alliant Credit Union’s legal department.

 How did your career progress immediately after law school?

While in school, I worked as a paralegal and then as a law clerk. The first four years after law school, I worked for a personal injury firm. Approximately 85 percent of my time at the firm was spent defending Mobil Oil in cases where contractors were injured on Mobil property. This gave me my first in depth view of a large corporation. I became very comfortable in the court room and with all stages of civil litigation.

While at the firm, I was approached by a supervisor in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office and was encouraged to apply for a position as an Assistant State’s Attorney in the Child Support Enforcement Division. I accepted a position as Assistant State’s Attorney in the Child Support Enforcement Division where I established and enforced child support orders. I also spent about a year in the Criminal Division. This experience cemented my knowledge of the courts, both in the civil and criminal areas.

My former supervisor (the one who had hired me to work in the Child Support Enforcement Division), contacted me in his new role as Director of Child Support for the Illinois Department of Public Aid and requested that I assist him by leading the Contract Management Department. This, he said, would be a very challenging position as it would require leading a staff of about 11 individuals and negotiating high visibility contracts with other governmental bodies. The contracts with other governmental agencies and collection agencies were valued at approximately 53 million dollars annually. Changes in personnel were required to make the contract team more efficient. My duties also included monitoring actions of outside legal counsel and collection agencies in child support collections and ensuring that those same partners were meeting necessary criteria for the Department of Public Aid to remain in compliance with both state and federal laws and regulations.

After about four years at Public Aid, I was contacted by a highly respected labor attorney who was assisting a newly appointed General Counsel of another state agency, Central Management Services (CMS), to fill a newly created Deputy General Counsel of Procurement position. With an annual $15 billion procurable spend, CMS purchased goods and services for 46 state agencies. One of my accomplishments at CMS included leading Navigant Consulting in a project that resulted in major changes to contract forms and documents and having those forms and documents adopted by 46 state agencies. The opportunity leveraged my knowledge of contracts and procurement. In that role, I supervised a seasoned attorney as well as two procurement specialists. This position, like the one at Public Aid, required change management.

I felt that after a number of years of public service, it was time to spread my wings and take the knowledge and skills I had developed to the private sector.

Is that when you went in-house?

Yes, in 2005, I left CMS to assist Accenture LLP as State and Local Government Counsel where I was able, once again, to leverage my commercial contracts and procurement knowledge. At Accenture, I counseled and advised internal business partners on all aspects of commercial transactions including teaming agreements, nondisclosure agreements, software licensing and contracts. Here, I gained significant experience negotiating intellectual property and technology issues. Wanting to manage and develop talent and contribute to business strategy, I decided I was ready for a new challenge.

So what did you do?

I started networking and letting contacts and friends in the profession know I was interested in a new challenge. I talked to many different people, getting many thoughts.

I called the president of the Association of Corporate Counsel (ACC) at the time. I didn’t know her that well, but I picked up the phone and called her. We had lunch, and she was so generous with her thoughts and had great advice. She shared three or four contacts with me; gave me their phone numbers. So, I sent out emails introducing myself to these people.

Is that how you ended up at Alliant?

Yes. One of them—a recruiter—got back to me within hours and asked me to come in a few days later. He had a job description that fit perfectly. It was Alliant Credit Union looking for an associate general counsel (AGC) who had my background and skillset and who was a generalist. So, I submitted my resume and the ball started rolling with interviews.

This position would utilize my knowledge of litigation, transactions, contracts and management! I landed at Alliant Credit Union, formerly United Airlines Employees Credit Union, in Chicago in 2007 and reported to Lee Schafer, Senior Vice President, Corporate Affairs. This AGC role combined all of my past experiences and included counseling internal clients on changes to laws and regulations impacting the financial institution.

How did you become general counsel?

In 2013, my title of AGC did not seem to fit my role any longer as my duties were that of a GC. Thus, my title was changed to GC to reflect my day-to-day responsibilities. I am grateful to my manager, Lee, and my organization for recognizing my value and for consistently encouraging my development and growth.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

Making sure we have the right resources is one. Making sure that I understand what the current risks are in our environment. And understanding the business needs that my internal clients have.

What do you love most about being a lawyer?

This profession, especially at Alliant, allows me to utilize my creativity, my ability to analyze complex issues and my desire to problem-solve. I can help our internal clients come up with creative solutions from both the business and legal perspectives. I thrive on achieving goals set for myself and my company.  My success has come from getting to know what drives others—from direct reports to internal customers. I find that building relationships by meeting with people “one-on-one” is critical to understanding their business needs, development needs and motivations. I always view myself as a consultant (with skin in the game) for my partners.

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

My current manager, Lee Schafer, is a phenomenal mentor. He encourages my development and encourages me to think of new processes. He has an amazing legal mind, so when we discuss legal issues, he thinks of things in new and novel ways. I have learned a lot from him.

Henry Synek, of course. He was a fantastic sole practitioner with a successful practice. He was the one who encouraged me to go to law school.

Bob Lyons was my supervisor at the State Attorney’s Office and he was a terrific mentor for me as well.

And finally, my husband Bill and our son have been my biggest cheerleaders and supporters. They both have made multiple sacrifices so I could pursue my passion, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.

There are many other mentors, both male and female (including my parents), who have served as mentors for me.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be the GC of an organization someday?

I tell attorneys to be open minded, flexible and nimble. This advice serves most young attorneys well. I tell them to soak in all the advice they can get from more experienced attorneys and from business partners. Don’t discount business folks just because they don’t have law degrees.

Also, young attorneys are often missing that financial acumen piece. Learn how to understand a balance sheet if you want to go in-house, and always treat your business partners well. And finally, always advocate for yourself.

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