Growing up in small town Morrilton, Arkansas, Alan Bryan always thought he’d be a doctor. It was a clear path—and one that made sense for Bryan, who excelled academically in middle school and high school, and loved the idea of spending his life helping people.
But when Bryan landed at University of Arkansas and started defining his skill set, becoming a doctor seemed less appealing. “I came to the realization that I was not thrilled about working in hospitals — and that can be pretty important in the medical field — so I changed course,” he says. “It hit me that I was really better-suited to help people and businesses through persuasiveness and problem-solving, and not so much in the medical context.”
Thinking of the best career in which he could apply his sharp intelligence as well as his desire to help others, Bryan decided to go into the legal profession. “I also wanted the opportunity to be a leader of people, teams, and communities, and to my knowledge, lawyers seemed well-equipped to lead.” Immediately after finishing his undergraduate studies, Bryan attended the University of Arkansas School of Law and joined a large Arkansas law firm upon graduating.
“Law offers the opportunity to provide solutions to individuals and entities,” he explains. “And it has such broad application that I thought learning how to be a lawyer would lead me to whatever path I want to take.”
After a decade in private practice, that path eventually led Bryan to the senior associate general counsel position at Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.
How did the Walmart opportunity come about?
Serendipity. I had been practicing with a law firm as a litigator for a little over a decade. Soon after I made partner, I moved from Little Rock, where I had originally practiced, to our firm’s branch office in Fayetteville. Fayetteville is about 25 miles from Walmart’s general headquarters.
Around that time, I was having thoughts about what the future would look like—not just in the firm but for litigation itself. The nature of litigation and the disappearing trial were on my mind—I wondered what both meant, respectively, for my opportunity to lead people and to get significant time in a courtroom. That’s when I decided to check on opportunities to go in-house.
The serendipitous part was not only my new location; there happened to be an opening to manage tort litigation for Walmart soon after I started thinking about the future. I had spent the majority of my 10 years as a practicing litigator—and a large part of that was litigation of tort matters. It was a natural entry point for me.
What interested you about going in-house in the first place?
The catalyst for me going in-house was the broader opportunity to lead people as opposed to being one of many partners in a law firm and leading, at best, a small team on my own matters. It was the opportunity to lead people that has always intrigued and excited me. By “leading people,” I am not just limited that proposition to direct reports or a team or a large group. We can lead peer-to-peer and on an individual basis, we can lead “up” with words and actions, and we can lead by example.
Walmart offers that opportunity in the legal department and other areas of the business like few other companies can. Also, Walmart provided the opportunity to lead in the legal profession more broadly on issues of efficiency, diversity, and how we value legal services.
However, the idea of working in-house first hit me in law school; but, first I wanted to get experience in private practice. Looking back, that was the right decision and I would advise any student in law school who wants to go in-house to consider getting outside experience before doing so. Sure, there are some opportunities straight out of law school, but you might limit yourself by not having outside experience.
How has your role evolved over the years?
I started at Walmart in July 2011 with a role managing tort litigation, and in May 2013, I took a position managing all outside counsel relationships with the company.
In 2015, that role evolved into something more and is now two-fold. It has an external piece, which is the continuation of managing outside counsel relationships in the U.S., but my role also has a second, equally-important piece, which is an operations function, where I am in charge of driving internal operational efficiencies for the department. The crossover and overlap is that many of those operational efficiencies revolve around procurement of our legal service providers, matter selection processes, and use of data and analytics to make the best decisions for the company.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
Walmart’s business model, created by Sam Walton more than 50 years ago, requires that we operate at everyday low costs (EDLC) to provide customers with the everyday low prices (EDLP) they expect and deserve. Our legal department is focused the same as our business units, and despite the difficultly created by the size and scope of our legal needs, on fulfilling Walmart’s mission of saving customers money so they can live better. There is a challenge given the size and scale of Walmart , and its legal department, to be a nimble and cost-conscious purchaser of legal services, and to operate thoughtfully and efficiently.
What do you love most about being a lawyer? Your job at Walmart specifically?
My philosophical answer: The law is a bedrock principle of any civilized society, and without it a certain anarchy would exist where the unscrupulous or powerful would mostly prevail. The law brings equilibrium to the world. It permeates and influences our everyday interactions and activities. Being a lawyer gives you a chance to likewise have great influence if you utilize that opportunity in a way best for society, community, clients, and people, and never just for yourself .
My practical answer: It is the perfect profession for those individuals who are genuinely interested in a wide array of topics and issues. A legal education provides a breadth of opportunity unlike any other to work in a number of professions and roles. Lawyers learn how to analyze and solve problems, among many other skills, and that is transferrable across professions.
Much like a legal education, Walmart gives you the same breadth of opportunity, but within the framework of a global retailer, whether in a truly “legal” role or not. What I enjoy about working at Walmart, specifically, is that the company allows you to utilize all of your legal expertise and training, but it also supports you in your personal missions and beliefs that align with our company’s mission, culture, and goals.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
In reality, I have had few specific mentors. I would rather focus the answer on the makeup of mentors and influencers in my professional life. Bottom line is that they have been varied in gender, ethnicity, background, belief, and perspective. I want to stress, particularly to younger lawyers, the importance for anyone who seeks out mentors to find them from varying backgrounds and perspectives.
In my role, I’m afforded the opportunity to pursue various initiatives in supporting women in the legal profession, among other diversity and inclusion programs and organizations. One of the things I have often said is that male lawyers need to ensure they have female lawyers as mentors, and vice versa.
Explain in more detail some of the opportunities you’ve had to support women in the legal profession?
Walmart is committed to celebrating, developing, and lifting up women around the world – both within the company and in the communities it serves. Walmart’s commitment to supporting women in the workforce extends to the legal department and to women in the legal profession. I have felt compelled for some time to speak on issues facing women lawyers. When I came to the company, and particularly in my current role, I have had great opportunity to speak up and speak out on those issues, and have been lucky to work for a company that helps me lend my voice to this cause.
For me, our collective success as lawyers in attempting to create a more just world requires that we first find justice among our own ranks. To achieve this, it is imperative that men recognize the need for gender parity at all levels of our profession. It is also the only way to utilize our country’s legal talent in the most optimal way possible. I have been honored to work closely with the National Association of Women Lawyers (NAWL), particularly through its NAWL Challenge Club program, and as a board member for DirectWomen, a national non-profit organization working to increase the number of women lawyers on corporate boards. In addition, it has been a privilege to work on initiatives supporting women in the profession and speak on the issue with the ABA Commission on Women, the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations, the ABA Diversity & Inclusion 360 Commission, Ms. JD, and Catalyst.
Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs? If so, how were they beneficial to you?
I have taken a few courses with an emphasis on leadership and I have read my share of books and articles on leadership. But, in my opinion, what is most beneficial to those wanting to develop as leaders and hone their leadership skills is to look at their inherent strengths that are also important in leaders, and develop them on their own. At the same time, it is important to recognize our weaknesses and work to correct them. Finally, utilize those leadership characteristics that best serve your company, firm, organization, community, or project. In that way, you can develop your own leadership skills and style from experience and environment—not just reliance on how many leadership programs you can sit through.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in a company someday?
I would tell that young lawyer to first develop a set of legal skills in one or more areas of expertise that aligns with their interests. Also, and importantly, start looking at the issues your clients face with a business eye—whether you have a business background or not. Ask questions like: How does this legal decision I am about to make affect the business strategy, the growth plan, the overall budget? Will these legal decisions affect the customers, the employees, the business model?
That will best prepare a young lawyer to go in-house. Increasingly today, legal departments are being asked to perform as an integrated business unit of a company and not solely as a law firm attached to a business. In-house attorneys are always legal advisors, but they are sought out to be business partners, as well.