Rich Veys knew one thing when he was entering college: He was going to be an engineer. As a high school student, he excelled in math and science, so his obvious course of action was to follow in the footsteps of his dad and older brother, both of whom were engineers.
But once the Omaha-native arrived at the University of Nebraska and began studying political science, he developed an interest in social issues. “It was the early 1970s, and there was a lot more social consciousness at the time,” Veys explains. “Social issues were huge.”
It was at that point that his focus began to shift from engineering to public policy. As he approached graduation, higher education in engineering was off the table and Veys found himself deciding between a master’s degree in public administration and juris doctorate. A year and a half later, he landed at the University of Illinois College of Law and started down the path that would lead him from Omaha to Chicago to Ohio and back to Chicago, touching computer technology, equipment leasing, management consulting and consumer products industries all along the way.
Today, Rich holds the top legal spot at Society of Actuaries, a professional association for actuaries in North America.
So tell me about your career path after law school.
Well, during law school, my plan was to go into public policy and legislative affairs. And I did some fairly traditional summer work. After my first year, I clerked for some of the judges in the state court in Omaha. After my second year, I did an internship with an Omaha law firm. But when I was interviewing for full time positions at the beginning of my third year, I met with Chicago firms and accepted an offer to work for Ross & Hardies, which later became McGuireWoods.
Now, consistent with a theme I’ve hit here, I changed directions again during law school. Obviously, I didn’t go into public policy and legislative affairs. What I found interesting in law school were business-oriented courses. So when I was looking at positions, I was looking at business law firms, generally expecting to do corporate-type work and general commercial business work. But not litigation. I had no desire to do litigation. I chose a firm where they had a practice of rotating incoming lawyers through practice areas for the first two to three years to developed interests.
I stayed at Ross & Hardies for four years, and it was a good experience. But while I was there, I changed directions again. At the end of that four years, I ended up doing commercial litigation. Despite coming out of law school with no interest in or desire to do litigation, I ended up doing that and enjoying it most.
This recurring theme in my career has been, what I thought I would do when I start is not what I end up doing.
How did you end up going in-house?
It was not intentional. I didn’t decide that I wanted to leave private practice or a law firm environment for an in-house position. There had been some break up of practice groups within Ross & Hardies, and I decided to start looking. An offer came to take a job in a fairly sizable legal department for NCR Corp., a computer technology and business machines company in Dayton, Ohio.
NCR’s GC was building a larger in-house legal department. He was moving a lot of work from outside firms to be handled in-house. He had recruiters who were helping recruit to Dayton, Ohio, which is a bit of a challenge when you’re looking to bring lawyers from big cities like Chicago, New York or Washington, D.C. My initial reaction was that I wouldn’t be interested in it.
But I did a phone interview with the person heading litigation and it was really interesting and sounded enticing. I went down for interviews, and my wife came along, and we saw what kind of house we could buy in Dayton compared to Chicago. We’d had our first child about a year earlier, so that part of the move was very tempting. So I took the job with NCR and we moved to Ohio.
I was there for almost seven years. The first half of that time I was doing litigation. We had arbitration agreements in all of our commercial contracts with customers or suppliers, so if business disputes required some kind of dispute resolution, we went to arbitration and the in-house lawyers handled those cases themselves. It was very hands-on. Not jury work, but trying cases before arbitrators.
How did your NCR job help build your in-house experience?
While at NCR, I made a decision to become more of a generalist and transferred from doing litigation to doing transactional work. I began negotiating contracts and working directly with business units on sales and marketing. That was a conscious decision to broaden my in-house skill set with a view toward career advancement in the in-house world.
After another few years of that type of work, it paid off. I heard about and pursued a position back in Chicago as the GC for a subsidiary business of Storage Technology Corp. That was in 1992, and that business I stayed with through 1995. That job disappeared as a result of corporate reorganization.
Then I took a job working for AT Kearney, a global management consulting firm. It was a small legal department, and I was senior counsel and worked for that organization for another six years.
Again, my fate was determined by things that happen in the corporate environment. AT Kearney was owned by EDS in Dallas, and at the end of 2002, EDS decided to bring all the legal work back to their headquarters in Dallas. It eliminated having a stand-alone legal function for AT Kearney in Chicago. So again, my job disappeared.
I then became part of a legal team with Sunbeam Corp. as they came out of bankruptcy. They had two subsidiary businesses—First Alert and Powermate—in Chicago and I was the in-house lawyer for those two businesses. I was doing that for a year-and-a-half until they sold the Powermate business, which became a separate privately held business. At that point, I stayed with Powermate Corp. and became its GC. As with most businesses owned by private equity firms, I expected that company to be sold sooner or later, but then 2007-2008 happened. With the beginning of the recession and the financial crisis, credit dried up and the business was unable to maintain the financing it needed, and it ended up being liquidated in a bankruptcy in 2008.
How did you end up at Society of Actuaries?
Mike Evers called me. He had been retained by Society of Actuaries to fill the new in-house counsel position they were creating. There was no in-house legal function here at the time.
He actually told me I didn’t fit the job profile, but he felt I had something to offer to this organization that wasn’t in the job profile—the fact that they were looking to establish an in-house legal function for the first time, and that was something I had done twice before. He really felt that that was as important or more important than some of the other things they put in the job description. I had no experience in the non-profit world or with professional or trade associations, so I did not fit the job profile in terms of having relevant experience with that type of legal practice. But he asked me if I would be willing to interview. He explained that he would also ask SOA if they were interested in speaking to me, and he would tell them why he felt they should. We went ahead and did the interviews and I got the job. That was June 2009.
Please tell me a little about your legal department. How many lawyers and legal staff? Has it changed much since you joined?
We have a legal department that includes one-and-a-half additional staff attorneys and one full time director of regulatory affairs, who also reports to me. So I have three people on the staff reporting to me.
What are your best practices for adding talent to your department? How have you gone about it?
I fill positions predominantly from networking and direct recruitment. For the director of regulatory affairs, my most recent hire just this year, I placed ads because it was a very narrow, niche role. We were pretty specific with what we were looking for and relied on targeted advertising and networking to find the right person.
I hired my full time staff attorney straight out of law school. She had done a summer internship with us after her second year. Then she came back in a post-graduate fellowship with us, and after that, we decided to hire her full time.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge I face personally has been the transition from being the solo lawyer who does almost all the legal work myself (at least what I kept in-house), to delegating and managing substantial amounts of the work that is done by other members of the staff. That is a change in role, a change that is not something that comes naturally, but it is a skill you have to develop and work at.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
Being a lawyer is always intellectually very stimulating. There is tremendous variety in what you do on a day-to-day basis. And as my career path demonstrates, there could be a great variety in the ways you apply your legal knowledge and skills in different businesses and different industries.
That is something outside lawyers are used to. They’re mostly specialized in one or two areas of practice, but they apply that specialization to a lot of different clients and businesses. But in-house, you tend to do the reverse of that. You focus on a single-client to whom you devote all of your work and energy, but it’s across a broader spectrum of legal issues, at least if you’re a generalist.
In my case, not always by design, I’ve had both types of experiences. I’ve been able to develop and apply a broad, generalist set of practice skills in the in-house environment, but have also had the opportunity over the years to shift how I apply those skills for several different clients in varied industries (computer technology, equipment leasing, management consulting, consumer products and now professional association). I have always found those changes to be stimulating and fun.
What about your current role?
It’s been a great opportunity for personal growth. That is something I have always looked for in every job I have taken. What is the opportunity for growth? How does this job allow me to develop new skills and new experiences to add to my portfolio?
When I took this job, it was because there were opportunities to expand what I did to a different industry and a different kind of practice. There was also a great deal more responsibility for corporate governance. A significant part of what I do here involves working with the board of this organization and supporting its leadership. I had not done that type of work before to any great extent, so it was a real growth opportunity. And, finally, as I mentioned earlier, there has been the challenge of transitioning into more of a managing attorney role.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
My most significant mentor was the GC at NCR—my first in-house job—Charlie Russ. His insight and views on the role that the in-house legal department should play, how it should function, how it should interact with the business leadership and demonstrate its value—the lessons I took from that were significant for my later career. Charlie was also very interested in developing and giving opportunities to people working in his department.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in an organization someday?
The first is to really identify a target. Having gone through a lot of job changes, often not by design, I’ve learned that it’s important to focus on what you’re shooting for and having a clear idea of what you want to do. It’s important when you’re looking for a job, and also when you’re in a job and you’re looking toward what you think you want to do in the future. Do you want to develop expertise in a particular industry or area of practice? Do you want to be a generalist or specialist? There are senior roles for both kinds of practitioners in-house. You can be the senior IP lawyer for large organization or the GC and sole lawyer at a small organization.
Once you’ve targeted where you want to go, then realistically assess what skills and experience you need, and identify gaps that you have on your resume or in your portfolio of experience and skills.
Finally, understand your personal strength and weaknesses. That’s where mentors come in and leadership development and training come in. You have to be realistically self-ware. Take stock of your strengths and where you might have weaknesses. The feedback you get and the feedback you ask for in your current job can be very important in helping you indentify those strengths and weaknesses. Then take concrete steps to build on strengths and to address those weaknesses.