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Headshot of Ritu Vig, Chief Legal Officer, SP+
Ritu Vig, Chief Legal Officer, SP+

Ritu Vig didn’t grow up with lawyers around her—but the idea crept into her head early on. She grew up in the north suburbs of Chicago and Venezuela, where her father’s work took the family when she was 14, with her two sisters. Yet, in middle school, her teacher challenged students to set goals for themselves, and Vig wrote that her long-term goal was to go to law school.

“I don’t know where the idea of law school came from, so it wasn’t a conscious decision,” she says. “Maybe I recognized then that a law degree was a way of keeping my options open to allow myself time to find a career that I was passionate about.”

Vig made good on a personal philosophy she had adopted early in life: chase happiness. And that happiness included working in law.

Vig returned to the U.S. in the early 1990s to attend the University of Illinois and major in finance. When she graduated and it was time to decide whether law school should be the immediate next step, the University of Illinois offered Vig an opportunity to teach an undergraduate finance class—a position that would greatly reduce the cost of law school. It was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up. “I was happy at the University of Illinois,” she says. “The faculty, curriculum and the culture was a good fit for me.”

Vig spent the next three years at the University of Illinois serving as both a finance teacher and law student. By the time she graduated, she had already spent one summer cutting her teeth as a summer associate at Wildman Harrold in Chicago, got engaged to a fellow law student and decided to move to Detroit, where she secured an associate position with Dykema Gossett.

During the next 15 years, Vig would develop the skills and business acumen—and obtain an MBA from the University of Chicago—that would set her on the path to be the chief legal officer of SP Plus Corp., a leading provider of technology-driven mobility solutions.

Please tell me about your career path immediately after law school?

My husband Venu and I got married, and we moved to Michigan. Venu was from Michigan and was passionate about going back to be part of the revitalization of Detroit. I was fortunate to get a position with Dykema Gossett in Detroit, and I started my practice as a corporate associate.

At the time, it was a hard decision to leave Chicago, but it was probably the best thing that could have happened for my career. Dykema was a top firm in Michigan and offered a diverse set of work. As a corporate associate, in some markets you end up being narrow but deep in a particular area of practice, like M&A or securities. But in Michigan, you are acting more like outside GC for a lot of your clients.

I was doing everything from securities to M&A work, bond offerings, general commercial and tax—and obviously, the general corporate bread-and-butter work as well.  I helped advise clients across a diverse mix of industries, including manufacturing, services, automotive and biotech.

It served me really well for my ultimate career path of going in-house. I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time, but having that diversity of work has been a huge benefit over my career.

You went in-house somewhat early in your legal career. Why did you choose that route?

My career path has resulted from a combination of being in the right place at the right time and being willing to take a chance —and that was the case with going in-house. We had moved back to Chicago for family reasons, and I was working as an associate at Katten Muchin. I loved law firm practice, and there, I was focusing on M&A work. I enjoyed the highs and lows of transactional work and getting in depth with the companies we were advising.

I got a call from a recruiter about a position as securities counsel for Wrigley. I wasn’t looking to go in-house and I told the recruiter a couple times that I was not interested. I enjoyed the work I was doing at the law firm, and I didn’t see a reason to make a change.

The recruiter said, “Just come in and meet the person you will work for and the general counsel. They are interesting.” I met them both, and they were phenomenal. Both had a great outlook on the business and how lawyers in-house add value. That spoke to me. And I love the business side of my work. Getting to use my skills to drive and grow a business is exciting. I thought, “this could be fun.” If I have one overarching philosophy in life, it’s to be happy in what you’re doing. After that, everything else will come.

I knew I would learn a lot, so I made the move in-house. I definitely debated if it was the right time to do it. Ultimately, I think opportunities come when they’re supposed to and I decided to take a leap.

For the first year at Wrigley, I was managing securities, M&A and doing general corporate work. Then, the company was taken private when it was bought by Mars, Inc. It was a $23 billion global transaction, and I had a wonderful time working on it and getting to close that deal.

At that point, I was ready to make the move to my next job. Because if you’re a private company, you don’t need a securities lawyer anymore. My GC ended up leaving as part of that transaction and my immediate boss did as well.

But then the new GC asked if I would stay and lead the corporate function. She was an impressive woman. She had a different approach than a traditional in-house lawyer. I saw an opportunity to learn from her. One area I wanted to grow was my business acumen. I wanted to get my MBA, and she was supportive of that.

So I stayed and ran the corporate legal function there and ended up growing my skill set by managing other areas. I also went back to school and got my MBA. I stayed with the company for almost 10 years and, as the result of my MBA and the support of my boss and the CFO, I also worked on corporate strategy projects.

Why did you end up leaving Wrigley/Mars?

My next role would have required me to move because Wrigley was fully integrating with Mars. Ultimately, I wanted to try something new. I had a little bit of a moment when I was not certain that my highest and best value was being a lawyer anymore. So I transitioned away from my job and Wrigley was supportive.

At that point, I had three kids. My first turned one while I was closing the Mars and Wrigley deal, my second was born between my second and third semester of business school and the third was born while I was traveling around the world for my role at Wrigley. I was at the point where I wanted to take some time to spend with my family and be deliberate about what I wanted to do next from a career standpoint. I decided to take a year off and at the end of the year, I would figure out what I wanted to do next.

I did a lot of soul-searching during that time. Ultimately, I realized what I am passionate about is using the legal function to drive growth in a business. The traditional mindset is that the law department is a cost center to mitigate risk. But it’s a lot more than that and there’s an opportunity to understand the business in a unique way. Bringing that mindset back to the in-house legal function is what I’m most passionate about.

At the end of my year sabbatical, I set out to meet folks I admired in the legal profession. Along the way, I was introduced to the then-GC at RR Donnelley who I heard great things about. RR Donnelley was in the middle of spinning off into three publicly traded companies, and they gave me the opportunity to come and lead the corporate function for RRD, a $7 billion marketing services company. I also met the incoming GC at RRD and knew it was the right next step for me.

I joined just before the spin was completed. Over my time at RRD, I helped execute a variety of complex corporate transactions, including refinancings, M&A transactions and the sale of the retained stakes in the two companies that were spun off, and also got to work on new business development opportunities. I had an amazing time working with a truly exceptional team on the legal and business side as the company developed its new strategy and identified its path forward.

How did you end up at SP+?

Once again, I received a call from a recruiter, Mike Evers. Mike and I met when I was getting ready to leave Wrigley all those years ago after the acquisition. Mike pursued me on behalf of one of his other corporate clients at the time.

Mike called me on behalf of SP+ and said, “take a look at this opportunity and I think you will be interested.” I said no.  I loved RR Donnelley. They have a great legal team led by an amazing GC, who is not only a really good boss and exceptional GC, but also a great leader and person, and that brings a level of humanity to a challenging and busy environment.” We had two very different skill sets and I was growing quite a bit under her. So I said, “no thanks.”

He said, “you should really look at it.” While I was very happy where I was, I met with then General Counsel Robert Sacks. He had been at SP+ for 30+ years; he started the legal team. And the company itself was in a really interesting place. It was refining its growth strategy. For me, it’s about happy—finding an environment where I enjoy the people I am working with and I have the opportunity to add value—and I saw the potential of that opportunity at SP+.

In addition, Robert was contemplating retirement and looking for someone to fill in the role. He hadn’t yet finalized his retirement, so it was an opportunity to come in and really learn from an existing GC. It offered me time to learn from him and grow into the role with a timeline attached to it. The thoughtful approach to the succession plan by Robert and the company really impressed me.

That was in November 2018, and I came in as deputy general counsel. Robert retired in September 2019 and that’s when I became chief legal officer.

How has your role evolved since you started in 2018?

The training wheels are definitely off! I have the whole role as opposed to pieces of it. I had the benefit of a long onboarding period and the company recognized that while the technical skills and business acumen to be GC are important, the fit, understanding the business and developing relationships are keys to success.

When I started, I had a very robust onboarding plan that focused on learning and understanding our business. I spent the first six months of the job doing that—meeting the leadership team, going out to regions, meeting with those teams and understanding what the issues are. In addition, I wanted to understand how they interact with the legal function today and what our opportunities were to serve them better.

In addition to having the support of Robert, I have the benefit of working for a phenomenal CEO. His outlook is, just because we do something well doesn’t mean we can’t do it better. He likes to say, “nothing changes if nothing changes.” He and Robert wanted me to identify the opportunities to improve how we serve the business.

So I spent the next few months taking the feedback from my team and the business and working with them to develop a plan for the legal department.

What are some of your biggest challenges?

I wouldn’t say there are a lot of challenges. We are in a really exciting time as a company. There are a lot of opportunities. We have a clarity about our purpose and the value we provide to our clients and the end consumer. That gives us a lot of great opportunities to tackle.

With that comes opportunities for the legal team. We continue to evolve as a team and grow. We take our role in supporting the company’s strategy very seriously. We are focused on finding solutions that enable the business to grow and move faster while effectively assessing and mitigating risk—all the while, ensuring that compliance and integrity are at the core of what we do.

What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?

I love the ability to impact people. For me, on a daily basis, it’s with my team, the management team and the business leaders I get to work with. More broadly, as a company we’re committed to serving our customers and our clients. I love the business we’re in. It’s an interesting and exciting time for us.

I also love that every day is something different. It’s challenging and fun. I don’t know what will happen during my day. I use a lot of different skills—whether they’re my management skills, technical legal skills or my investigative skills—to try to solve problems. When I’m doing it right, I’m thinking about the bigger picture—where things are going and how we can get out in front of them.

In my current role, besides loving what we’re doing as a business, I love my team. I enjoy working with them on their development and learning from them. I am new to this industry but my team has a great amount of experience and they have all been amazing teachers for me.

Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.

I have been really lucky. I haven’t sought mentors but I have always been fortunate enough to have people who took an interest in me and my career. Early on at Dykema, Jin Koh and Brendan Cahill, to name a few, took me under their wings and spent time to help develop my knowledge base from the bottom up. The firm was really committed to developing their associates. It was just invaluable.

At Wrigley, Howard Malovany and Luis Machado and later Ellen Kollar, who became the GC at Wrigley after the merger, took an interest and spent the time to broaden my mindset to understand the unique value that in-house legal teams provide and how to manage and drive change effectively.

At RR Donnelley, I worked for Deb Steiner. She taught me a lot about people management and areas of the law that weren’t my core expertise. She helped me learn how to approach more complex problems. She also had a non-siloed approach: Her view was you are a smart person at the table, and it’s your job to add value.

At SP Plus, our CEO Marc Baumann and the former GC Robert Sacks have been such great champions for me. They have given me the space and support to make change.

Tell me about your life outside of work. What are some of your hobbies? Family?

I’ve been married for almost 20 years. We have three fantastic kids—a 12-, 9- and 6-year old. We love spending time together, whether playing tennis, travelling, going out for bike rides or just reading together. They keep me very focused on what really matters. My parents are in the suburbs and my two sisters live close by. We just love being able to spend time with them. My family is the center of my world.

In addition, I am on the Board of Mercy Housing Lakefront, a non-profit helping to tackle the issue of affordable housing in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.  I also work with the University of Chicago Booth School of Business supporting their recruiting efforts.

What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?

First, be curious and ask questions. That has probably served me at every stage in my career. If you don’t understand something, ask about it and always look to broaden your knowledge base.

Second, oftentimes, the problem you’re trying to solve really isn’t the issue. It’s bigger than that. So think big picture. Understand what the real obstacles are and how to take a more holistic approach. Be able to anticipate what will happen next. Understand where your industry is going and the strategic direction of your company.

Third, being a lawyer is only a part of the job. The price of admission is being a really good technical lawyer. To be a good GC, you need to develop other skills. You have to be good at managing people, having a vision and developing a strategy. You have to be financially savvy and understand your business. All of those things are critical to being successful so look to develop those skills along the way.  It will help you immensely when you are in the role.

And finally, love what you do, love the business you’re in and love the people around you. If you chase happy, everything else comes.

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