Dorothy Capers was born to be a lawyer.
She was born in Pine Bluff, Ark., and spent her early childhood in Birmingham, Ala., where her family owned a motel. This was in the 1960s—at the heart of the civil rights movement. The motel, one of the few in Birmingham that allowed people of color to stay, was bombed when Dorothy was two.
Fortunately, no one was physically injured in the attack. But out of concern for the safety of his family, Dorothy’s father—a hospitality industry professional—decided to move the family north. They eventually settled in Glen Ellyn, Ill., where he went to work for the College of DuPage.
But through all of the moves, her family remained close with the Brantons, their neighbors back in Arkansas. The family patriarch, Wiley A. Branton Sr. was a prominent civil rights lawyer and activist.
Dorothy remembers thinking of Branton as a civil rights hero—a stalwart in such an important movement. As she watched him move through his career as a civil rights advocate, a prominent law firm lawyer, a public company board member and the dean of Howard University School of Law, Dorothy came to view law as a way people could get answers, seek justice and right wrongs. “That struck me as something I wanted to do,” she said.
By the time Dorothy entered undergraduate school at the University of Illinois, she already decided she was going to be a lawyer. And she navigated her academic life accordingly—getting involved with the Minority Association of Future Attorneys and other campus legal groups, as well as focusing her studies on history and speech communications.
Dorothy was heavily recruited to University of Wisconsin Law School after graduating, but she felt like the Midwest campus would be more of the same. Instead, she decided Howard University School of Law would not only be a better fit, but also offer the type of environment she was seeking. “Howard had instructed giants like Thurgood Marshall, Douglas Wilder and Vernon Jordan Jr. Wiley Branton was the dean when I was deciding where to study law,” Dorothy said. “For me, these were hallowed halls, which gave me the strong desire to attend.”
And she was right. Dorothy studied law among classmates like Letitia James, New York’s State Attorney General, and forged relationships with fellow students that would go on to have prominent law careers. And she’s stayed in touch with many of her professors, whom she now calls friends.
But, more importantly, Dorothy received the law school experience she wanted, both in the classroom and outside, at Howard. The prestigious university allowed her to form the foundation for the successful legal career ahead of her—one that would ultimately lead her to the associate general counsel role at US Foods, Inc. and ultimately the general counsel position at National Express.
So, you graduated from Howard University. What happened next?
During law school, my professor of criminal procedure was Judge Harold Cushenberry Jr. in the D.C. Circuit. He needed a law clerk and asked if I would be interested. At the time, I had already had an offer from the State’s Attorney’s Office in Cook County, Ill., but the clerkship seemed like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. So I asked the State’s Attorney’s Office in Cook County to suspend my offer. They weren’t able to do that because they had too many interested candidates. So I turned it down and clerked for Judge Cushenberry.
That position—seeing the court in action and attorneys presenting their arguments—helped me realize that I wanted to be a litigator. And I loved working for Judge Cushenberry. I gained a lot of experience. It was a great way to engage with the law.
After a year, I came back to Chicago and got a job with one of my professors, Randolph Stone, who was then the Cook County Public Defender. It was a great opportunity, and I loved working on the legal issues in the office. But to be honest, it was the most difficult job of my career. I was assigned to defend those that had allegedly neglected and abused children. I firmly believe all people need and deserve representation, but this job was so emotionally taxing and difficult to manage. My heart wasn’t in it.
When did you decide to leave?
I stayed in that position for a year. And then one day, a man walked into my courtroom and asked to speak to me. I told him I had a busy court calendar, but I would get to him and asked him to take a seat. That was so embarrassing because that man turned out to be Cecil Partee, the Cook County State’s Attorney. He was there to offer me a job in the State’s Attorney’s Office—and that’s where my heart was. I stayed there until I went into private practice.
Why did you go into private practice?
Working in government was great. It really helps you learn how the world ticks. You really have an impact, see results, help people and make things safer. I learned so much in government. But by this time, I had a family and a young child, and was in search of a higher income.
I decided to reach out again to a friend who helped me get an interview with the law firm Greene and Letts. The firm, now Zubler Lawler LLP, provided me with excellent experience and legal issues to address. I hold them in high regard today – it was a huge turning point in my career. Eileen Letts is still a close friend of mine. The lawyers I worked with there taught me a lot.
I wasn’t there that long—from 1993 to 1995—because one of our clients was Metra and they had an in-house opportunity. They also wanted to bring diversity into their offices and I was the first African American attorney hired for the railroad. I loved working at Metra. I really learned a lot about how in-house law practice worked.
In 1995, Richard “Dick” Devine was State’s Attorney. As States Attorney, he wanted to connect with the community and also partner with the Chicago Police Department community policing program. He asked me to return to the States Attorney’s Office to create the community prosecution program and then expand it across the city. So I left Metra to go back into government with Cook County and then the City of Chicago under Mayor Richard M. Daley on Project Safe Neighborhoods.
In 2009, you decided to go back in-house?
Again, I had found myself working in government, and I wanted to go back in-house so I reached out to another friend and let him know I was looking. He told me Juliette Pryor, who at the time was the GC of US Foods, was moving her legal department from Maryland to Chicago and was looking for good lawyers. So I sent my resume and got an interview. In 2009, I started working at US Foods as its associate general counsel, leading litigation and bankruptcy. I was there for six years.
How did you end up at National Express?
Right after I started at US Foods, we hired a lawyer I worked really well with. We were like two peas in a pod. And we worked together all through his time at US Foods. Then, in 2013, he left to become head of litigation at National Express. I actually helped him negotiate his acceptance!
Two years later, he called me and shared that his GC at National Express was leaving. He urged me to apply for the job. At the time, US Foods was going through a merger, and I wanted to see it through. I told him no, but he persisted. Finally, I sent him my resume and got an interview. I really loved the company and I was ready for the next step of my career as a GC. So when they offered me the job, I couldn’t pass it up.
How has your role evolved since you started in 2015?
I started out as North American GC—working on U.S. and Canadian legal issues. Our group GC, who was based in London, eventually left. So I went to our CEO and asked to be considered for the role. I think there was hesitancy because National Express, as a British company, always had a group GC based in the UK. But I kept working—showing him what I could do and offering up examples of how I would provide value to the company.
And about six months later, he named me group GC. At that point, I supervised teams not only in North America, but also teams in the UK, Germany and Spain.
What are some of your biggest priorities in your current role?
Engaging my team as business leaders is a top priority. Much of the time, lawyers see things as black and white. They see a problem and find a legal answer on how they can fix it.
I push my team to look at the bigger picture: how will the issue show up in years to come and what impact will it have across the entire company. When they act as business leaders, they are able to provide a much better view of the risks and mitigation of risks that might pop up if they know the business.
I’ve worked hard to develop relationships with business leaders and really stressed this to my team. Once that relationship is built, it creates a trust that allows the teams to work together. Business leaders will then reach out at the beginning of the issue vs. the end to ensure the issue is appropriately addressed. I’ve seen this evolve during my tenure to be very successful.
I also give my team opportunities to excel and grow by working on cross functional and companywide projects. I want them to be seen by the executive team not as “legal,” but as an important part of a collaborative effort.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I love getting the business to “yes.” I love getting them to a point where they are presented with an issue—legal or ethical—and we streamline it so they can do the business. The company wants the business to grow. I enjoy being a catalyst for that.
Please tell me about the mentors you’ve had growing up in your legal career.
My most impactful mentor has been my friend Juliette Pryor, my former GC at US Foods. She taught me how to become an integral part of the business, not just a lawyer. She taught me to show up as my authentic self and be transparent—not to sit like a shrinking violet, but to be thoughtful and focused and add value to the business.
Another early mentor I had was retired appellate court judge David Erickson. I worked with him at the State’s Attorney’s Office. He is just a salt-of-the-earth guy who provided so many opportunities for people to develop in their careers. He’s one of those people who will just call you up out of the blue and say, “I thought you would be interested in this project.” He’s not only a mentor, but serves as your sponsor, always listening and thinking about you and your career.
Critical to my career success has been Patricia Holmes, managing partner of Riley, Safer, Holmes & Cancila. She has done so many groundbreaking things in her career. I have always watched her as she moved forward. Through relationships, she helps and nurtures people, and it has been amazing to see. I have truly benefitted from her support and guidance.
Tell me about your life outside of work. What are some of your hobbies? Family?
I have a husband and two daughters. My husband is a photographer and a corporate event promoter. He was the mainstay while I traveled all over the world for my current role, and I will be forever grateful to him for that.
My daughter Mariah is 29 and works in human resources. She is an amazing woman and a hard worker—she has already completed her Master of Science degree in organizational development. My daughter Mackenzie is a senior in high school and is assessing her acceptances as she prepares for college in the fall. She is an excellent student and wants to study marine biology.
As for hobbies, I love to cook. My dream is to own a bed and breakfast in my next life—where all my friends can come and visit. I am actually a trained chef—I got my culinary certificate on the side while I was practicing law. Cooking grounds me and makes me happy. I love seeing my family and friends reactions when they eat my food.
I’m also very involved in my community. I’ve supported many organizations and causes on my own but also worked alongside my daughters who do a lot of their own community service work—preparing blessing bags for the homeless, working on the issues associated with racial injustices and building sandwich packs for people who don’t have sustainable food.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?
Relationship building is key. You never know when you will have to work with someone you have engaged with in some way. I have horror stories about working with people in court who didn’t treat me kindly. But over the years, I have learned to take those experiences and make them positive.
You want people to say, “I worked with her; she’s smart, collaborative and easy to work with.” You want someone to tell your story before you can tell it. That comes from the way you show up and engage in your work. You want your reputation to precede you. That’s really important with a GC role.
I would also say to learn a lot across many functional areas. You don’t have to be a subject matter expert but should expand your legal knowledge as much as you can. Learn enough to be dangerous! You should know enough to say, “That doesn’t sound right. I may not know the answer, but I know someone who does.”
The “general” in general counsel is so valid. You need to have a general sense of a lot of topics and areas of law. You have to advise the board, the executive team and your team. And you need to be able to have enough expansive knowledge, common sense and experience to do that.