Growing up an only child to hard-working parents in a small Midwest town, Christine Carsen excelled in school and set her dreams high. Taking note that the most successful people in her hometown donned either the title of “doctor” or “lawyer,” Carsen decided she would make a career out of one of these two respected professions.
When Carsen landed at University of Iowa, she first tried her hand as a pre-med student, but decided it wasn’t for her. Because the university didn’t have a pre-law program, Carsen immediately shifted gears to major in history, with a specific intent on going into law.
A few years later, Carsen found herself as a first-year law student at Cornell University’s prestigious law school, where again she excelled academically. In addition to serving on moot court and editing a law journal, during her time at Cornell Carsen also worked for a summer at the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office at the time famed adulterer Joey Buttafuoco was going to jail and when the Long Island Railroad Massacre murderer was on trial. “It was an interesting time to be there, to say the least,” she says.
Immediately after graduation, Carsen went to work as an associate at Boston firm Eckert, Seamans, Cherin & Mellott, where she had hoped to handle litigation, but ended up focusing her practice on corporate. “That’s where the needs of the firm were,” she explains. “And it’s interesting how it set my career path ever forward.”
While there were several steps along the way—including a move back to the Midwest and work at other law firms—Carsen’s experience in her first job out of law school set her on the course to one day be the general counsel of highly respected technology company, Mattersight Corp.
So let’s back up. Would you tell me a little more about the early part of your career?
At Eckert Seamans, I did your basic corporate and securities work, and I was there a year. Then my dad had a minor health issue, and it really brought home that I needed to be closer to my family.
So I did some searches from Boston, and ended up at IT boutique law firm Gordon & Glickson in Chicago (which has since merged with McGuire Woods). I went there thinking I would do corporate work for IT companies. But its greater need was on the technology side. I had no technology background at all, but they said it didn’t matter, that they would teach me what I needed to know. So “the rest is history” in terms of my IT career.
Starting from these small firms as opposed to big ones, I was given opportunities to take on a more advanced role in negotiating deals, for example, than I would have been able to do in a big firm. It was cool to have that experience.
What happened next?
I was at Gordon & Glickson for about three years and was working until 10 every night, both days of the weekends almost every weekend, and I got kind of burned out. I realized I really needed to rein it in a bit.
So I spent a year at another smaller firm, then got recruited by the head of the corporate practice at Winston & Strawn to help build their IT practice. They had an interest in building a team there. I stayed there for several years, made partner and was there until 2007.
How did you end up at Mattersight?
To back up a bit, Mattersight was originally called eLoyalty Corp. In 2011, we divested a business unit and that business unit took the name eLoyalty. We took a new name and became Mattersight Corp. after that.
Interestingly, the opportunity for me came up in that a recruiter who I worked with at Gordon & Glickson thought of me for the opportunity and referred me over to Evers Legal Search, the firm that was handling the opening for eLoyalty. She had called me up and wanted to know if I was interested in the associate general counsel position. I would be reporting directly to the GC, and focusing on information technology commercial transactions. I would also be the chief privacy officer, which was great because I was doing a fair amount of privacy work at Winston as well.
The deal was I would be groomed to take over eventually. It was very appealing to me, and I thought it was a really unique opportunity.
When did you work your way up to the GC position there?
After I was there about a year, the GC left. At the time, there was an assistant GC and me, so I raised my hand and said I wanted the job. At the time, we were working through divesting the business, so the CEO said, if things went well with that deal, he would promote me. In the interim, through more internal change, I was given the corporate secretary responsibilities. So I was essentially acting as the GC.
Then, good to his word, when the divestiture occurred, the CEO officially promoted me to GC.
Please tell me a little about your legal department. How many lawyers and legal staff? Has it changed much since you joined?
When we did the divestiture, one other attorney left to go with that business unit, and we had a paralegal. The legal department retracted to the point that it was just me, and up until last fall, I was on my own—the one armed paper hanger—at the company.
And it definitely presented a lot of challenges.
What are some of your biggest challenges?
As the sole lawyer in-house, you’ve got a limited legal budget, which is why you’re the only lawyer there. There’s a lot of balance between what you have to take on, what you should take on and what you need to farm out and trying to manage that within the budget.
One of the challenges in being the sole full legal source for so long is you get “legal loneliness.” Certainly you have business colleagues, but there’s no one around to bounce ideas off of. You have your outside counsel law firms, but you have to pay for those conversations.
I recently hired another lawyer, and it’s nice to have a legal colleague in the department. My new in-house lawyer is only a year out of law school, and now I’m working on training him. My goal is to give him as close to a law firm training as I can within the in-house constraints. That presents some challenges striking that balance, but it is important. So much of the time at the more junior level law firm positions are “get it done, crank it out.” There is less emphasis on putting in the critical thinking and the why of the changes. That’s a critical component in my training.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
I enjoy being a part of the management team, part of management level decisions and being able to guide other members of the executive team on matters critical to the company: identifying areas of risk and helping to form strategies. You don’t get that as an outside lawyer. You just get little snapshots, not the whole the picture.
Tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
The most important ones I had were at Gordon & Glickson—Mark Gordon in particular. He was critical in forming my approach to negotiating contracts. He provided me with so many opportunities to sit in on negotiations with him, and I really learned a lot from him.
And Diana McKenzie, also at Gordon & Glickson, pushed me out of the nest and got me to start thinking that I can actually do this.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in a company someday?
The most critical thing is, especially if you’re making a move from a law firm to an in-house role and then want to move your way up: You have to wear two hats. You can’t be “all lawyer” in an in-house role. And you can’t take the same hard line that you take in a law firm—that conservative, completely risk-averse, risk avoiding advice you give as outside counsel.
When you’re in-house, you have to wear a business hat at the same time as your legal hat. You have to look at the big picture and find risk-minimizing solutions rather than completely risk-avoiding answers. You don’t want to be the department of “no.” What executive management wants is to find a workable solution.