In middle school, D. Cameron Findlay got one of the most interesting assignments of his young life. His sixth grade teacher tasked her class with writing an autobiography. But the students had to write it from the future—looking back on their long lives and fruitful careers. Findlay didn’t hesitate when he scribed a few pages about his accomplished legal career, which included snagging a US senate seat, but only after successfully graduating from the revered Harvard Law School.
“I don’t know how I came up with it,” Findlay says. “I didn’t know any lawyers and I honestly have no idea how I had ever even heard of Harvard Law School. … And anyway, I was only half right.”
While Findlay may not have pursued a career in politics, he’s no stranger to success. Growing up in a loving Midwestern home, his parents—a dentist and former social services worker—encouraged Findlay to pave a path to happiness, both personally and professionally. After graduating from high school in his hometown (and mobile home/recreational vehicle manufacturing capital of the world) of Elkhart, Ind., Findlay headed to Northwestern University.
“My dad wanted me to go East, to an Ivy League school, but my girlfriend at the time was attending Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. I didn’t want to be that far from her,” he says. “And then almost immediately after I left for school, she broke it off.”
Still, Findlay says Northwestern was the perfect place to transition a small-town Midwestern boy onto the larger stage. He did well there, and upon graduation, he landed a Marshall Scholarship, which allowed him to study at Oxford University.
When he came back to the states two years later, Harvard Law School was there—ready to set Findlay on the path that would not only lead him to his wife (also a Harvard Law School graduate), but also to practice law in both government and private sectors, and ultimately land him the GC seat at Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), a Fortune 50 global food processing and commodities trading company.
So you graduate from Harvard Law. What happens next?
There was a guy I interviewed with at a DC law firm who was on the other side of the aisle. He graduated law school around 1962 and then he clerked. He was coming out of his clerkship during the Kennedy/Johnson administration. And he thought, “I’ll have plenty of time to be in government later. I want to make money at a law firm now.” But in the next election, Nixon wins. And then Nixon wins again. He’s 15 years out of law school before a democratic administration came in and by then he was making too much money to go into government.
I remember this story vividly. It taught me that you have to do what you want to do when you have the opportunity. I was coming off my clerkship in 1989 and then George H.W. Bush was elected. And I had a number of opportunities to go to different places in that Administration at a fairly low level, and I didn’t know if I would ever have the opportunity to work in government again.
So I started working first for Secretary of Transportation Sam Skinner. Then he became White House Chief of Staff, and I went with him and had a pretty senior role at the White House as Deputy Assistant to the President and Counselor to the Chief of Staff. Some of my peers as Deputy Assistants to the President were Condoleezza Rice, Josh Bolton and the late press secretary Tony Snow.
I lucked into that job and was in the White House until Bush lost to President Bill Clinton. Then, I had to get a real job and went to Sidley Austin for most of the 1990s. When George W. Bush won, I was asked to go back as Deputy Secretary of Labor. So I did.
After that, you end up in-house. Why did you decide to go that route?
Having practiced in a law firm for almost 10 years, I always felt like trial lawyers were on the outside looking in. I felt like a hired gun, only called in to clean up a mess. What I really found interesting was the idea of avoiding the issues in the first place, and being part of a team. Especially being in litigation, I always felt like they are making decisions in the company and creating the facts. Then when the facts have been created, they come and knock on the window and wave you in to help. I always felt like an outsider. I always thought it would be interesting and rewarding in-house.
How did your first in-house job come about?
I had been in government for a couple of years when I was asked to be in the search for a major GC. Job, a Fortune 30 company. I was getting pretty far along in that search. So I called my former partner at Sidley, Tom Cole, and told him I was in the running for this job and asked what he thought of it. He said, “if you’re thinking of coming out of government, I think Pat Ryan at Aon wants to talk to you.”
Pat Ryan was Aon’s CEO and he called me a little while later. I had met him before, and fortunately, he had no idea what skills were required to be GC. He just thought, “this kid seems reasonably intelligent and he’s a lawyer.” So he flew out and had dinner with me that night and offered me the job on the spot.
That’s the way to do it! A job working for a great company with a boss I admired! So in August 2003, I became GC of Aon really without any GC or corporate governance experience at all. And it was great.
I had a few months to get up to speed. But soon after, we got a subpoena from Eliot Spitzer, which dominated my next two years at Aon. Ultimately, we achieved a reasonable settlement and then I had to work on introducing the reforms we agreed to. So it was a trial by fire at Aon.
After a few years, I was recruited for the GC job at Medtronic in Minneapolis. That was another great experience. It was a company that always had interesting legal issues—from the federal investigations, FCPA and IP perspective and lots of tort litigation because many of Medtronic’s medical devices are literally in people’s bodies. I had a great team both in terms of my peers on the executive committee and the lawyers who worked for me. It was a smart group of people. I really enjoyed it.
How did you end up at ADM?
I had accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish at Medtronic when ADM came calling and told me they would be moving to Chicago, which is my hometown.
How would you describe the legal department?
ADM was a very large global company with what I would describe as an immature legal department at the time. It felt more like a legal department from the ‘70s than the 2010s. For comparison, Medtronic was a $16 billion company with 130 lawyers. At ADM, at the time, it was a $90 billion company and we had about 60 lawyers.
We were spending a lot of our money on outside firms. We didn’t have a lot of structure or functional specialization. So my first order of business when I came to ADM was to implement standard operating procedures common in legal departments around the county: embedding lawyers in the business units, introducing some structure and specialization, negotiating discounts with law firms, creating preferred provider networks of law firms, putting in matter management systems so we knew what we were spending and what we were spending it on. Just basic blocking and tackling.
After five years, we were named best legal department by Corporate Counsel magazine. I was proud of that because we had a clear goal of making the legal function better and we delivered on that.
Has the department’s size changed?
We have gotten slightly larger in-house, while at the same time—thanks to moving work from more expensive outside law firms—we have saved the company millions of dollars.
The legal department isn’t much bigger—maybe 70-80 lawyers, if you count Compliance personnel. But we have brought labor and employment law in-house, for example, and hired M&A specialists so they can handle that in-house. We put people with the businesses so we can answer day-to-day questions without them having to call outside lawyers. Another thing we’ve done is institute a companywide rule that the only people who can engage outside counsel is inside counsel. If you’re not in the legal department, you aren’t allowed to call a law firm. We want you to come to us first.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
I think our business is changing so we have to evolve with it. Traditionally, we were a grain, logistics and processing company. Our current CEO has a vision that he would like us to move closer to the customer. So we bought a flavors business and a probiotics company. If you’re trained to be a grain lawyer or grain transportation lawyer, the world of flavors and flavor systems and probiotics is alien. We’re having to add skills and adapt to the business.
There is also more regulatory scrutiny on food businesses, both in the US and in other countries. There are a lot of requirements on companies like ours, so we can’t afford not to be up to speed on the latest laws and regulations.
And, like every legal department, the biggest challenge is doing more with less in an age of cost containment.
What is a goal you have for your department in the next 12 months?
One is simply to make the legal department a better place to work for us all—foster a good esprit de coeur. Lawyers tend to be very smart people and have big egos. It’s like herding cats. We a have a matrix organizational structure where we have lawyers in the business in functional areas and geographies. A good thing about a matrix is that you are embedded in your business and know what they want. The bad thing is you’re butting up against other lawyers. One thing I want to do is enhance collegiality and the spirit of cooperation in the department, as well as communication with each other, so we all have fun practicing law.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I like being part of a cross functional team that has a lot of different business people and where everyone is not a lawyer. I practiced law at Sidley throughout the ’90s. I loved my partners. It was a great firm with a great ethos and sense of teamwork. But it was all lawyers.
I like being in an environment where I’m working with engineers, MBAs, agricultural economics majors and IT geeks. I find the variety and being a part of a team to be rewarding. You feel like you own things personally rather than being a hired gun, an outsider.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
Sam Skinner was a partner at Sidley. He noticed me when I was a summer associate and got in touch with me when I was coming out of my clerkship. I went to work with him at the Department of Transportation and then the White House when he became President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. Sam and I have known each other more than 30 years. He is a lawyers’ lawyer. He is a former US attorney, and also involved in the political world. He has done many things for my career.
Chuck Douglas was chair of the management committee at Sidley. When I was in his group, he showed me how to deal with chaos while being calm and rational with a great sense of humor. You might feel like the world was falling apart and Chuck could see the little bit of humor in it and stay calm.
Please tell me a little about your life away from the office. If you’re comfortable, please tell me about your family. Hobbies?
I’m married to my law school classmate. She is no longer practicing but we have known each other for 34 years. We have two sons. One went to Northwestern and the other went to Duke.
I am an obsessive Northwestern sports fan and huge Chicago Bears fan. My wife and I travel a lot and are going to Morocco soon to see a part of the world we haven’t seen. I also read a lot of nonfiction, history and biographies.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
I would advise a lawyer who wants to be a GC to get in-house in whatever position you can as early in your career as possible. I see a lot of lawyers go to a law firm, become partner and feel like that has made them good enough to be a GC. But executive recruiters will say, “we want someone who has been a GC or at least has been in a senior in-house role.”
A young lawyer should get in, and not worry about the title or how much money you will make. Just get in, put your head down and work hard—then work your way up through the department.
Once you’re in, it’s important not to get pigeonholed as the expert in only one area of law. Avoid that by letting your boss know you’re willing to take on additional responsibilities. Don’t turn your nose up at something because it doesn’t seem worthy of you. Jump in with both feet. That will help you be a great generalist.