Today, Lauren Tashma heads up the legal department of Graphic Packaging International, a Fortune 500 company that manufactures paper-based packaging for a wide variety of consumer products. But when she was a child, Tashma had her sights set on a different career entirely: flight attendant. Flying around the world, and getting paid to do it, offered the exotic lifestyle Tashma—who had never stepped foot on a plane at that point—envisioned for herself.
But her dad may have had other plans. A Chicago police officer who often had to appear in court for work, Tashma’s father would sometimes pull her out of school and take his daughter to court with him. During these visits, Tashma would watch the women States Attorneys argue in front of the judge. And then, at the end of the court call, her father would introduce her to them. “These were tough-as-nails prosecutors who commanded so much respect in the courtroom,” Tashma recalls. “I was in awe of them.”
By age 10, she traded in her ambition to become a flight attendant and set her sights on becoming a lawyer. “And I never looked back,” she adds.
After high school, Tashma headed to Northwestern University for college—staying close, but not too close, to her Chicago home. Immediately after finishing undergrad, she enrolled at Loyola University Chicago School of Law because it had a reputation for turning out top-notch litigators.
Although Tashma had planned on applying to be a US Attorney, after her second year of law school, she took a summer associate position with Wildman, Harrold, Allen and Dixon. There, she met some incredible litigators who were completely committed to teaching young associates and providing good experience early on. So, after graduating law school, she decided to table her dream of prosecuting for the government and headed to Wildman, Harrold, Allen and Dixon to give commercial litigation a try.
How were those first few years in private practice?
Those early years were just drinking from a fire hose. It was a period of rapid growth as I was thrown into the deep end and I loved it. I had a lot of responsibility early on and it makes my pulse race just thinking about some of those early depositions and court appearances when I just had no idea what I was doing, but I did it anyway.
You went to Fortune Brands after only six years in private practice. Why did you decide to go in-house?
I really wasn’t planning on making the transition to in-house until I had been made partner—but the proverbial call came from a recruiter and I took the time to explore the opportunity.
Fortune Brands, a company that was then headquartered in Connecticut, was looking for a litigator to fill a corporate generalist spot because Kent Rose and Noel Elfant, the two attorneys who were working in the Illinois satellite office, had a theory that a good litigator is by nature a strong problem solver. They were looking for someone who could handle a wide range of issues with a practical approach. I wasn’t really ready to give up my law firm role, but the recruiter convinced me that this was a rare chance for a litigator to go in-house. Once I got to know Kent and Noel, I knew it was the right time for me to make the transition even though I would be the most junior lawyer of about 10 in the department.
Fortuitously, a couple of years later, Fortune Brands moved its headquarters to Illinois, and all of the Connecticut lawyers except for the GC decided to resign. This corporate relocation pushed me up through the ranks at an unexpected pace, and I was also given the chance to help rebuild our department by helping with interviewing the new attorneys we hired.
I stayed with Fortune Brands 13 years through the eventual split up of the company into three pieces. As part of that evolution, I got to head up the legal side of the spin-off of the home products business that later became Fortune Brands Home and Security. The departing Fortune Brands CEO anointed a management team for the new company and we all pulled together to make the spin off happen.
It was an overwhelming and unique learning opportunity to take a company public and then get to head up my own legal department. I recall the incredibly proud moment as the management team stood on that balcony of the NYSE for the opening bell to celebrate the completion of the spin.
After two years though, the CEO exercised his discretion to pick his own management team and we decided to part ways. I embarked on a national search for a new role with a public company. As soon as I interviewed at Graphic Packaging, I knew I had found my new home. The whole management team had a great energy and the then-CEO David Scheible and I had an immediate connection.
How has your role evolved since you started in 2014?
The five years that I have been with Graphic Packaging have been a time of phenomenal growth for us. We have completed over 15 transactions, including deals in Australia, Spain and Mexico. We have grown our annual sales from $4 billion to $6 billion and expanded the scope of our manufacturing footprint dramatically.
With that growth came an increased volume and complexity of legal issues, and we have had to be extremely agile and adaptable as a department to meet those challenges. I have been given a lot of freedom to grow my role to address what I perceive as needs of the company. As a result, I have taken on a number of compliance initiatives. In the last couple of years, I have also been entrusted with oversight of our government relations work.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
As a GC, you need to be constantly adapting your priorities to address the changing regulatory landscape and the evolving needs of the business. At Graphic Packaging, we move with great urgency—which is one of the best parts of our culture but also the most challenging. I need to help the business navigate risks without becoming a drag on our momentum.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I feel incredibly blessed to be entrusted with the position that I have. Every day brings new challenges, and I have a seat at the table for all of the critical discussions on the course we are charting for the business. I inherited an amazing team of professionals, from administrative assistants to attorneys, all of who give their heart and soul each day to advance our business objectives.
Our CEO Mike Doss has high expectations both for himself and for our management team and that creates a very dynamic environment where the team is always pushing for better results.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
There are so many people who took the time to teach me along the way, without whom I don’t think I would have had the right tools to advance in my career the way that I did.
Mark Miller and Brian Lewis at Wildman, Harrold (now with Barnes & Thornburg) spent countless hours teaching me litigation fundamentals and providing me with incredible opportunities to practice my skills.
Kent Rose and Noel Elfant at Fortune Brands took a litigator and transformed me into a true corporate generalist—giving me responsibility for everything from synthetic leases with a TIF financing component to FTC work. They taught me to show no fear when you face a new legal challenge.
Mark Roche was my General Counsel for years at Fortune Brands and an amazing mentor. Three years before the spin-off, he sat down with me to take inventory of all of my skills and develop a plan for me to add missing skills to my tool box so that I would be ready to assume the GC role when he retired. He gave me responsibility for a Board committee so that I could start to get to know the directors. Mark even found a way to get me into a board meeting by appointing me the department expert on Dodd-Frank, which had only been recently enacted. He charged me with educating the Board on the nuances of the new legislation. He prepped me for my big presentation by orchestrating a “mock board meeting” at which the other lawyers in our department played the board and interrupted my presentation with a non-stop barrage of questions. It was from feedback during that mock board meeting that I learned the importance of maintaining a poker face when someone asks a random question. They just don’t teach you that critical GC skill in law school.
Tell me about your life outside of work.
I have a wonderful husband and two amazing kids. When we can align our schedules, we love to travel as a family. Our adventures have included swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas and going on safari in South Africa. Our “nest” is currently empty as our daughter is a sophomore at Northwestern (Go Cats!) and our son is an analyst with Morgan Stanley in New York.
Outside of work, I have found some really wonderful Georgia organizations to work with. I give time to Make-A-Wish Georgia both as a board member and a wish granting volunteer. I also work with the Georgia Latino Law Foundation as a mentor to law students.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC in a large company someday?
In my experience, you need two things to be qualified to be a GC: a wide range of substantive skills and connections. You need to have as many skills in your tool box as possible so you can convince a company that you will be able to identify and address their issues. To get those skills, try to jump into the deep end whenever you can because that is the only way to immerse yourself in new issues and pick up more substantive skills. Be the person who takes on that project that no one else wants. Be open to getting out of your comfort zone as much as you can because that is the only way you grow.
To foster connections, you need to be deliberate about engaging with both the legal community and the greater community at large. Everyone always used to tell me to “take the time to network.” I used to think that networking was for other people who had cushy jobs and too much time on their hands. For a long time, I thought that I was way too busy to do things like agree to speak at a conference or talk to a recruiter who was looking to fill a role that I did not think I was interested in. When I was between positions, I regretted saying no to many of those networking opportunities. Now I tell young lawyers all the time—when the phone rings and it is someone who wants to network with you, take the time for the call. You don’t know when your path will intersect again with that person. You don’t know who will be in the audience at that conference so say yes when someone asks you to join a panel. Get out there and join a non-profit board so that you can learn some corporate governance skills and also engage with your community. It doesn’t help to have the skills if no one out there even knows your name.