Janice Block was destined to be a lawyer. She grew up in northwest Indiana, her father was in private practice and her mother was an English teacher. But when Block was in sixth grade, her mother decided to get a law degree of her own. Family dinner table conversations from that point forward were lively, with discussions revolving around hot legal topics. And when Block and her sister had a day off of school, their mother packed them up and took them to class with her. “I remember sitting in an evidence class and thinking it was the coolest thing ever,” Block says.
Excelling in her studies, Block became only the second person in her high school to get accepted to and attend Princeton University as an undergrad. While going to law school seemed inevitable, she also had a passion for journalism and took a year after graduation to get her master’s at Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. After finishing that program, she had the choice to be an anchor on a daytime news broadcast in Montgomery, Ala., or a street reporter in Davenport, Iowa.
“So I decided it was time to go to law school,” she says. “My friend from Princeton, Brad Smith—who went on to become the GC of Microsoft—suggested Columbia. I went for a visit and loved it.”
In the years following her Columbia Law School graduation, Block went to work in Big Law, first in Kirkland & Ellis’s intellectual property practice, then to Seyfarth Shaw to help build its IP group, and finally to Rudnick & Wolfe (now DLA Piper). But she was only in that last position for a year when her old friend Smith presented her with an opportunity she couldn’t refuse—an in-house counsel job with Microsoft.
That role would set Block on a path that would eventually lead her to the chief legal officer seat of Kaplan, one of the top education companies in the world.
Why did you decide to go in-house?
When I was at Rudnick & Wolfe, one of my largest clients was Microsoft, and I had done some copyright and piracy work for them throughout the Midwest. Then Brad called and asked if I would be interested in moving in-house, to work as Microsoft’s regional counsel in Chicago. I was seven months pregnant with my third child at the time, and I ended up spending the next five years at Microsoft.
What was it like working at Microsoft?
I loved my job with Microsoft. From the overall legal and technology learning to leadership development, it was the best training I could have ever received. In addition to being a lawyer, I was regularly interacting with technologists and business leaders. But more than that, Microsoft really focused on developing leaders—the soft skills and hard skills. They had workshops and programs that were taught in-house that focused on such important topics as building high-performing teams, motivating and inspiring individuals, cross-functional coordination, and so much more. I learned how legal could most effectively interact with technology, strategy, finance and other groups. The skills I developed have been invaluable for the rest of my career.
What did you do after Microsoft?
Well, I did not take a linear career path. Mine had twists and turns. While I was working at Microsoft, I had three young children. The company is headquartered in Seattle and I was spending a lot of time there and traveling the 17-state U.S. central region. I was travelling so much that in 2002, when I went to my youngest daughter’s parent-teacher conference, the teachers thought I was a flight attendant. I couldn’t understand why, and they explained that it was because my daughter said, “Mommy goes to work every day on an airplane”!
That was a wake-up call, so on my 40th birthday, I decided to retire to stay home for my kids for a little while. While I was retired, I did some consulting work for Microsoft. The company had brilliant technologists who were often unable to express themselves well in written communications. So I spent a winter vacation developing a writing workshop. I ended up spending a good portion of my “retirement” teaching effective writing to groups at Microsoft.
Eventually it was time for me to return to work full-time. A lot of Chicago law firms had kept in touch with me during my “retirement” period, and in 2003, I joined Greenberg Traurig as a partner in its IP and technology practice.
Were you hoping to go back in-house?
Well, one day (while working at Greenberg) I was having lunch with a friend who was a lawyer in Atlanta, and he was one of two finalists for a GC job. I told him that day, “Becoming a GC is really my dream.”
Based on this one comment, he sent my CV to his legal recruiter, and the next morning the recruiter called with a GC opportunity. Within days, I met the recruiter in person, and within a few more days I was interviewing at Career Education Corp. Literally two weeks from the time I confided in my friend, I became the GC of Career Education Corp.
Please tell me about that first GC position.
I started at Career Education in April 2005. It was a $2 billion publicly traded company that had never had a legal department, a GC or a communications and public relations department. So I came in and created both. I built a legal department and led it as well as the communications department.
That was really important at the time because the company had been the subject of a 60 Minutes documentary on for-profit higher education. They had a lot of regulatory investigations going on, a significant litigation docket and a shareholder battle.
All of this was happening at the same time. It was trial by fire. I joke that I became a GC in dog years because I learned seven years in one.
How did you end up at Kaplan?
I had become very passionate about providing quality education to a population of students who would not have access to it otherwise. I decided to move to a company that also offered this type of online and on-ground higher education along with a much broader set of education products and services. I joined Kaplan at the end of 2006 and have been here ever since. I started as the GC of Kaplan Higher Education and over time became the Chief Administrative and Legal Officer of Kaplan Inc.
Please tell me a little about your legal department. How many lawyers and legal staff do you have?
Since I started, the legal department has grown into new areas of coverage and new geographies. I have been responsible for hiring many lawyers in the U.S. and elsewhere. We have three lawyers in London—one of whom is an expat transfer from Chicago. I really believe in cross-cultural legal experiences for those who are interested. It enables us to share best practices. We also have lawyers in Sydney and Beijing. I also staunchly support the professional development and career goals of the lawyers who work for me.
Has it changed much since you joined?
The structure of the department has changed several times since I joined, as the legal department must be responsive to the needs of the business. Recently, we made the decision to decentralize. Currently, each of our legal units report into me, as well as their business units. We also have several specialized legal functions like mergers & acquisitions, intellectual property, and compliance reporting into me at the Kaplan parent unit level.
How do you add talent to your legal department?
From my own legal career, I have a very large legal network across many cities. And a lot of the lawyers I’ve hired do as well, so often we can easily recruit through our own personal networks, and it’s amazing how many resumes will flood in.
I also have been very committed to mentoring younger lawyers. We have had a summer legal intern program since I joined Kaplan. That program has generated a number of lawyers we’ve hired over the years.
I also have worked with legal recruiters. And I have been quite pleased with the talent they’ve brought to us as well.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your legal department?
On the substantive legal side, there’s no question cyber security is a big challenge. We are rapidly trying to stay ahead of the game in this area in so many ways. Kaplan just supported our parent company Graham Holdings’ launch of CyberVista, a cyber security training organization for senior leaders. But keeping pace with all the technology changes and making sure that we don’t have any gaps, and that we have all the right controls in place to prevent breaches is something we focus on steadily.
When you’re a global company, anti-corruption is a big issue. We want to make sure we have all the right training and checks in place and that we’re monitoring appropriately. We do a very good job with all of our compliance controls.
On the internal legal management side, budget budget budget! We have to run our legal department like a business unit. We forecast legal expenses and fees in all areas—litigation, labor, regulatory and so forth. We work very closely with our outside legal vendors. I have a first Friday rule that law firms must have their bills in our hand for the previous month by the first Friday of the new month.
Educating our business clients about what legal services cost and where we should be spending money on the legal and compliance side is also a challenge. It takes a lot of thought, planning and internal advocacy.
What do you love most about being a lawyer?
At this stage in my career, I love mentoring other lawyers to grow not only their core substantive area of legal skills but also their leadership skills and soft skills. Law schools should do better at teaching skills like problem solving and relationship-building, which are so important to a successful career in law. That is true of external lawyers and lawyers who practice in house.
What do you love most about your job at Kaplan, specifically?
As for Kaplan, I love its mission. I am so passionate about education and about helping people advance their life goals through education. We do that in so many ways all over the world. We’re a kindergarten-to-grave education provider. In addition to our many higher education offerings around the world, we help prepare students and professionals for standardized tests and licensure exams in a large variety of fields; we train learners all over the world in English language; and we offer pathways programs that help students develop skills they may not have learned in their own countries and then we help those students progress to other universities.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
One of the people I talked about earlier was Brad Smith, who helped steer me to Columbia and make my first in-house move to Microsoft. My first boss when I started at Microsoft, Nancy Anderson, taught me the importance of being an assertive advocate with a gentle touch, a motto I’ve always followed.
I also consider my CEO at Kaplan, Andy Rosen, who is on the forefront of where higher education is headed, to be a major influence. He has been a tremendous mentor for me on leadership, the future of education and the education industry globally.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be senior in-house counsel in a large company someday?
I seem to be dispensing a lot of advice to young lawyers these days, especially since my daughter is about to graduate law school in May. Seriously though, the skills I talk about are important skills from the time you first launch your career—problem solving, project management, packaging information, communication, both verbal and written. These are important in all stages of a legal career, as are being authentic and a good listener. With these skills, young lawyers will go so much farther in their careers and be so much better suited for the practice of law inside corporations or law firms.
And of course, in-house counsel must have business judgment and the ability to understand how a business operates. The best in-house lawyers are adept at balancing legal risks and benefits with business goals and objectives.