As the SVP of human resources, general counsel and secretary of Jockey International, Mark Jaeger is right where he wants to be in his career. Growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Jaeger was a good student with an interest in business and law. As an undergrad at University of Iowa, Jaeger focused his studies on economics, but he knew he wanted to become a lawyer. So after completing his undergraduate studies, Jaeger headed straight to law school—attending Southern Illinois University.
But from there, Jaeger’s career path didn’t follow that of today’s typical general counsel. Unlike most GCs, who typically spend a few years in a law firm before crossing over to the business side, Jaeger landed an in-house gig right out of law school, at manufacturing company Roper Corp. in Kankakee, Ill.
“I wasn’t targeting in-house positions at that point,” Jaeger explains. “I was just looking for opportunities to practice law close to my hometown of Chicago.”
Roper, a Fortune 500 company with a medium sized legal department, offered Jaeger a great opportunity to put his legal education to practice.
“It was an established practice, sophisticated and primarily involved product liability defense and litigation,” he says. “It was an in-house team that had been doing a lot of that work already for a number of years, and they trained me to do it.”
Jaeger’s work with Roper set him on a career path through various in-house positions that ultimately landed him the top legal spot at Jockey, one of the most recognized brands in the country.
How long were you at Roper?
I was there two years, and was facing relocation further south where they were moving production. So I looked at Chicago and applied for a job at a company in the defense industry called Northrop Corp. and was called for an interview.
I would say Northrop was great “journeyman” training area, if Roper would have been considered “apprentice.” It was an established Fortune 100 company with a large in-house legal department of more than 50 attorneys, and I worked as a generalist in their electronics division in Rolling Meadows, Ill.
How did you end up at Jockey?
I was at Northrop for six years, focusing on government contracts, labor and ethics investigations. I was interested in opportunities at the next level and saw an opening for an attorney with Jockey in Kenosha. There were several reasons to apply, including the fact that I was interested in transitioning to consumer products from defense.
So after sending my resume and interviewing, I was invited to join the company as the third lawyer on a small team, and I accepted it. That was 1993. And then within two years, the GC at Jockey retired and I was given the opportunity to be the GC. That was 1995 and I’ve been the GC since then.
You’ve never worked at a law firm. Was that intentional?
My career trajectory is unusual. Yes, I’ve worked in-house my entire career but I did clerk in law firms during law school., I’d like to say I was prescient about the role of the in-house attorney and how it would grow in importance, but really I was trying to open doors and find the best opportunities coming out of law school. Also, the corporate job was a good fit for combining business and law—and that’s where my interests were.
My background doesn’t map to the conventional path of the average in-house attorney today: four-to-six years in a law firm then moving to a corporation and so forth. That’s true. But looking back, the experience I got right away in a corporate setting was great. It really prepared me well for a long-term career as an in-house attorney.
In hind sight, moving into a firm can be great especially if your credentials allow you to get into a top firm. On the other hand, the experience and the opportunities early on in the corporate setting are broader and more meaningful if you’re going to be in-house compared to what you would get in a firm setting.
How has your role evolved over the years?
The role has evolved quite a bit and continues to change, and that is why I have been comfortable staying and working here for so long. Jockey is privately held and family-owned, and it hasn’t seen the kind of transitions public companies have gone through. So that has presented the opportunity for longevity.
The initial role as a younger GC was to learn the business, to support the board, and to learn the secretary role. More generally, the challenge has been to change as the business model changes. That’s an important learning point, particularly for younger lawyers. Rarely is a company’s business model going to be static over the mid- to long-term.
Jockey is a great example. It has gone from 100% internally manufactured production in the U.S. to today where 100% of the product is sourced globally. That change is challenging. You move from employment, manufacturing, factory-related legal issues to global trade, compliance, creditor rights and customs.
What are some of your other big challenges?
Every day I come in, I’m not sure what the issues will be. There could be a marketing issue, employment, trade or real estate. The challenge is being flexible and curious enough to stay on top of the legal issues for your company as it changes. It’s a challenge every day as you come into work to make sure you’re capable of addressing those issues, adding value and giving the best advice for making the best decisions.
What do you love most about being a lawyer at Jockey?
It’s a great company. The brand is well known. It’s a product I can understand. When I worked in defense, I can’t say I understood how the radar jammers on the jet planes worked.
I also like the international scope of the business. It’s been a lot of fun with a lot of challenges to work in different countries, in different legal systems and trying to get the best results for the company. And it continues to be exciting.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
My boss at Roper, who ran the product liability department, was patient and did a great job to explain the culture and the system that was in place.
I also had mentors at Northrop who exposed me to understanding how to work in a larger law department and how to work in a large public company.
And then, when I became GC here at Jockey, I reported to the CFO. Generally speaking, you’re better off with the GC reporting directly to the CEO, but there can be benefits, particularly for younger attorneys, in working with and for the CFO. I learned to look at issues from the perspective of the CFO and how to understand the role legal plays and to understand it’s not always the biggest role in the room. It’s a slice.
Have you been involved in any formal or informal leadership training programs?
It’s funny, now that I am head of an HR team, one thing we focus a lot on is developing talent. And leadership is a key component of that. It can take a lot of different forms. I have an appreciation for the importance of that kind of training for all employees.
But for me personally, the training I look back on would not be formal leadership or legal training, but having the opportunity to participate in training with business folks. For example, a several-day quality management training session at Northrop was really informative for me. I got to learn about products, business issues and different disciplines besides law.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
Be strategic about your career planning before even applying to law school. In hind sight, I benefitted from transitions that I didn’t even know were happening when I came out of law school. I moved in-house because that was my opportunity, and that’s where I stayed. It turned out to be a good opportunity for me.
The role of the in-house attorney has grown significantly and the GC role is very desirable for many lawyers today. To get there today, think about the path you plan to follow to get there, and if you go off of that path, it can be challenging to get back on.
Consider carefully where you are going to go to school and what the cost will be. Consider your plan coming out of school. If you start on a path that typically doesn’t translate to a job in-house, it becomes difficult to make that transition later in your career.
Additionally, consider initially focusing on a specialty area that you know will translate in-house and would allow you to start in a more specific skill area, then broaden out your role over time.
It’s pretty hard without a strategy that’s well thought out to stumble into an in-house role today.