One thing is for sure, ever since Bonnie Michael can remember, she wanted to be a lawyer. Legend has it, she announced to her parents, at about six years old, that she would grow up one day to become a successful attorney. The youngster then sat down at her kitchen table, as the story goes, to write letters to deans of some of the country’s top law schools—Yale and Harvard were both on the list—to ask them what exactly she had to do to achieve this feat.
Michael herself doesn’t actually remember this story, but her proud mother has told it time and again. What Michael does remember is recognizing at a young age the importance of the work lawyers do and working hard to realize a goal she had set for herself so long ago.
After completing her undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michael took some time to get real business experience before heading to law school, working in sales at window coverings manufacturer Springs Window Fashions. She enjoyed the work so much, in fact, she stayed for three years. “I really liked what I was doing – working with national retail accounts. My accounts included big name, big box retailers. It was a pretty fun job and I got to travel,” she says. “I realized if I stayed longer, I would start making real money, which would make it even harder to leave.”
As Michael puts it, she pulled her act together, took the LSAT and headed to IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, setting her plan in motion—one that would ultimately lead her to the GC seat at Volvo Financial Services USA.
Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?
I started at a high-energy boutique firm in Chicago that had 12 attorneys. It specialized in representing commercial lenders and leasing companies. It was a great opportunity to have direct contact with clients, most of whom were finance companies. Very early on, I was able to set the direction and strategy for litigation and bankruptcy matters.
Then after a few years there, I went to Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg and worked in the creditors’ rights and bankruptcy group. I continued to do a lot of the same type of work I did in the small firm. Some of the partners I worked closely with represented consumer finance companies giving me more experience on the regulatory and compliance side as well.
Why did you decide to go in-house?
I always wanted to go in-house. It started back at Springs Window Fashions. Marketing would launch a new product line, but seemingly the IP due diligence wouldn’t have been done and we’d have to change the name of the product. I thought, “If I worked here as a lawyer, I hope we would do this right.”
I realized there weren’t many opportunities to go directly in-house. And that was OK because I loved what I was doing in private practice. But I was very lucky and got a call from Meredith Haydon (of Evers Legal) about a position at Navistar Financial. Surprisingly, I had exactly what they were looking for, and I ended up going in-house.
How did the Volvo Financial Services opportunity come about?
My moving to Volvo Financial Services is a story of the importance of networking and being known in the industry.
For background: The ELFA (Equipment Leasing and Financing Association) has been a driving force throughout my legal career. I started attending ELFA legal forums annually very early in my legal career. The legal forums not only helped me stay current in my area of law, but also provided me with a network of remarkable, dedicated legal professionals.
When I was at Navistar Financial, they entered into an arrangement with GE Capital(GE took over the retail finance operations), which would result in my job being eliminated within 18 months. But I had a good situation and was offered a nice severance package.
Not long after the arrangement with GE Capital was announced a person I knew through ELFA called me and said, “Did you know that Volvo Financial is hiring a GC for the US?” It turned out, I knew the person who was hiring, also through ELFA. So I reached out to her and I got back a nice email. It included the job description and inquired whether I knew “anyone who would be interested.” That was me—I was very interested.
How has your role evolved over the years?
Initially, I had a very small team – one attorney, a paralegal, and a shared assistant. I now have two attorneys, a dedicated paralegal, three bankruptcy and litigation specialists and a compliance specialist. This growth has given me opportunities to develop my leadership skills.
My responsibilities overall—being a part of the U.S. executive team—have also changed a lot over time. In addition to being “at the table” for nearly all critical decisions, I have had the unique opportunity to develop and lead our community involvement initiatives for Volvo Financial Services USA. As a leader in a global organization, over time I have also been give opportunities to serve on other committees for the Volvo Group – both with attorneys and other leaders in different parts of the business.
Additionally, Volvo Financial Services supports being active in industry organizations and I was recently honored with being named to the Equipment Leasing and Financing Foundation’s Board of Trustees.
What are your best practices for adding talent to your department? How have you gone about it?
My best practice is finding the person that fits. “Fit” is the most critical factor when you have a small team filled with amazing people. My team has seven highly dedicated, high-performing individuals, and they all look out for each other because they truly care about each other. You have to be very selective with the person you bring into a team like that. I feel spoiled everyday having such an amazing team.
Legal knowledge, technical skills and organizational skills are critical, but the most important thing is the right fit. If you hire someone with decent, even if not spot on, legal skills that is the right fit and is smart and ambitious, that person can develop and expand on those skills with the right tools and leadership. Hiring someone who is super bright with spot on experience, but doesn’t fit in with the team is a much greater challenge.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Definitely time and resources. I am always trying to balance the needs of the organization and provide a cost-effective legal resource for them. I am always balancing: what can my team do and do effectively vs. what can and should I send outside?
We’re constantly trying to make sure we are timely meeting the needs of the organization and coming up with the best solution using the limited time and resources we have.
What do you love most about being a lawyer? Your job at Volvo Financial Services specifically?
When you’re in-house, there is always something new and different to work on. The business changes. With that, I really enjoy working with the business to help solve problems and come up with creative ways to work with customers. That’s a great thing about being in-house. You’re part of a team that’s finding solutions.
I have two great teams that make working here pretty special: the legal department and the U.S. executive team. They are quality people. It’s great to find an environment like we have here.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
Every professional position I have had, people have invested time and really invested in me. I can’t possibly name all of them. But here are three in chronological order:
Jacob Corre was my favorite law school professor at Chicago-Kent. He made secured transactions interesting. He was excited about it and it was contagious. He has given me guidance and great advice at every step of my career.
Susan Rosenthal is an attorney I met early on in ELFA. She encouraged me from the beginning to be active in that organization. She was willing to take some time and understand where I wanted to go with my career.
Kristin Moran was the GC at Navistar Financial. She showed me how to manage people and she did that by recognizing the individual, giving ownership and delegating in a very effective way. There have been so many times, where I sit back and ask, “What would Kristin do?” It was really special to have someone like her as a manager early in my in-house career.
Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs? If so, how were they beneficial to you?
I’ve been to leadership classes, but most of what I’ve learned about leadership has been through observing other leaders. You can learn a lot through observation about what to do as a leader and even more importantly, what not to do. You can go to all the classes you want, but to me seeing it on a day-to-day basis is the real thing.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in a company someday?
Do work that you love and have a passion for and be active in organizations that will help you develop professionally and help establish a relevant network. Taking steps to understand how business works generally and ideally in the industry you seek to practice in is important because having an understanding of not just the legal aspects, but also the business issues can give you a real advantage.