John Albright spent the early part of his childhood living all over the world. An army brat, he moved every few years—which forced him to be outgoing and constantly make new friends. Albright made his last childhood move from Australia to North Carolina when he was in the fifth grade, finally setting down roots.
As a student, Albright excelled in math and science throughout his formative years. He graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Institute of Technology. Right out of school, he went to work for Shell Chemical Company, selling plastics into the automotive and transportation industries. It was there that Albright had the opportunity to work closely with and get to know some of the lawyers in Shell’s legal department—and he realized, he might find the work rewarding.
Having traveled a lot with his Shell job, Albright got to know—and fall in love with—Nashville. So when it came time to pick a law school, he set his sights on Vanderbilt. “It was a laid back city, and the school had a strong recruiting pipeline, so it made sense,” he said.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University Law School, Albright did what almost any sensible lawyer with an engineering background would do—he went to work as a patent lawyer for a respected law firm. Albright landed at Alston & Bird in Atlanta focusing his practice on patent and trademark litigation. Then two years later, he moved to Finnegan Henderson, where he helped launch its Atlanta office. “It was a really neat experience,” he said. “It was one of the largest IP boutiques in the world, but only had four people in the Atlanta office.”
However, it wasn’t long before the in-house counsel world came calling. Two years after joining Finnegan Henderson, Albright accepted a position as global IP counsel at Network Solutions/VeriSign, a domain name services company in Washington, D.C.—a move that set him on the path to a successful in-house career that would ultimately lead him to the CLO seat at Hub International, a large insurance and employee benefits brokerage firm.
Why did you decide to go in-house?
It wasn’t part of the master plan. It was a dot-com and, at the time, I had a couple of friends who had become .com millionaires on paper so it was very appealing.
The company was successful by Internet standards. They were third in revenue behind Yahoo and AOL. And they were pretty well established. I was hired as their first IP counsel. We were a small legal department. If water came in the door, we all filled sandbags.
While I was there, I evolved into the role of legal director for the domain name services business. This was pre-ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) when companies were registering thousands of domain names. When ICANN came into being, the business model wasn’t as robust as it had been.
From there I was invited to be an integration manager for that side of the business. Our stock was $250 a share, so we were buying everything in sight. I wasn’t qualified on paper to integrate newly acquired companies, but that was one of the beautiful things about working at a dot-com. The opportunities were coming so fast, you would be offered a role because it needed to be filled. And leaving the safe confines of the legal department was one of the most daring career moves I had ever made.
When the bubble burst in 2001, we weren’t really buying anything anymore. We went from hiring 100 people a week to laying off the same amount—almost overnight. And we ended up shutting down the last major business we had acquired, which I was still running at that point.
I was living in Washington, D.C., at the time, but the company was in LA, so I was stuck doing the cross country commute. Rather than accept an offer to run yet another California based business unit, I decided to venture out and start interviewing and ended up joining an Accenture-British Telecom joint venture that would become Accenture HR Services.
I was there less than a year when Accenture decided to buy BT out. It was a bit of a rollercoaster at first and rather than integrate us into the larger outsourcing services business, they ultimately decided to keep us separate. Our management team stayed on board and we continued to run the company under the Accenture umbrella. When the company was eventually fully integrated into Accenture I was offered a senior commercial role—being the lead deal person on the Financial Services and Insurance Operating Group’s largest multi-tower BPO (business process outsourcing) deals.
I loved this job, but was on the road all the time. I just had my first daughter and had recently moved to Florida. It was either commit to being an absent father or look for other opportunities.
As luck would have it, I got a call from a search firm looking to fill a commercial negotiations role at IRI, a data, technology and market research company in Chicago. So we moved to Chicago, and about two years later, I moved back into the more traditional GC role at IRI.
How did you end up at Hub International?
After I moved into the legal department at IRI, it was five years and one great recession later that I got the headhunter call on behalf of Hub International.
I had never been in insurance, and I told them that I didn’t have an insurance background, so I wasn’t sure how I could best contribute. But Hub is the type of place that puts culture over regulatory expertise, and that was part of my initial attraction to the company. Following an extensive interview process, I joined Hub in 2014 as chief legal officer.
How has your role evolved over the years?
Looking at my three GC roles, each in rather different industries, it hasn’t changed dramatically from a legal support perspective. As I matured professionally, I’ve gotten more involved as a business leader—and functioning as far more than just a legal adviser.
As far as how Hub has changed, we will celebrate our 20th birthday this year, so we are a fairly young company, yet we’re now the 6th largest insurance broker in the world. A lot of that growth has been through acquisition, as we acquired more than 50 companies last year. We have also expanded into different markets like 401(k) advisory and retirement services.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge is always doing more with the same. Just because a company grows, it doesn’t mean your budget grows with it. We’re constantly getting creative on how we share talent. We are always looking at stronger project and vendor management skills, legal operations initiatives and legal services providers. That ties in with bringing on more paralegals and administration staff so we can build out a more robust operations footprint within the four corners of the legal department.
What goals do you have for your department in the next 12 months?
Other than the operations capabilities I previously noted, we are launching an enterprise risk management initiative. And if you look at the broader legal and compliance team, we now have varied backgrounds and job descriptions. So I’m looking to bring this diverse team together to best accomplish the broader commercial objectives of the company.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
For me, it’s being part of a business. I like to remind out team: We’re business professionals first and lawyers second. What are the broader corporate objectives? We need to fully understand them and be prepared to meet those objectives.
Please tell me a little about your life away from the office.
I have two beautiful girls, a second grader and seventh grader. They are the most important things in my life. They’re growing up so quickly, and their lives seem a lot busier than mine did when I was that age. Weekends are just as packed as any day in the middle of the week. But I always say, it’s important to find time to let them be kids and enjoy life—and I make an effort to do that for them.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
The GC role can be a mile wide and an inch deep. Get exposure to as many things in your career as you can. Learn the businesses you’re supporting so that you can contribute beyond that of a legal advisor.
It’s rare for someone to want to do something that is flat-out illegal. And if it does happen, those are easier, black and white discussions to have. Good in-house lawyers are trying to pave a path that also reduces risk. Focus on influencing and educating your clients about reducing risk and working collaboratively to get to the right decisions rather than lecturing them on legal statutes.