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Sherri Morissette, General Counsel at National Dentex

Sherri Morissette considers herself very lucky in some regards. As a child, she remembers a moment when her parents and some friends were sitting around a large table. They were actively debating. She doesn’t recall the topic, but she remembers their articulation, the points each was making and the conviction in their voices. None of the adults were lawyers, but they were all passionate about the topic — and they were enjoying the debate.

In that moment, Sherri thought to herself, “I could do that. I could be a lawyer.” From then on, she knew what her future looked like. After high school, she would go to college and law school, then ultimately become a lawyer. She never wavered from that position.

Sherri (pronounced shuh-REE) grew up alongside her sister Sherry (pronounced SHARE-ee). Only three months apart, the girls’ parents married when they were 10, and they enjoyed a happy childhood in a Chicago suburb.

After high school, Sherri attended DePaul University for a year before transferring to Western Illinois University, where she majored in political science. After graduation, Sherri did an internship with the Senate Budget Committee in Washington, D.C. Then she took advantage of a full scholarship Western Illinois offered her and earned a master’s in international relations, thinking it could be helpful if she decided to go into international law.

After graduate school, Sherri decided to head to law school. She spent her first year at John Marshall Law School (now University of Illinois Chicago School of Law), then transferred to Northwestern University School of Law, one of the country’s top law schools. Upon graduation, she went straight into Big Law — taking a position as an associate at Skadden in its Chicago office. The decision and the work she did in that role prepared her well to one day sit at the helm of a legal department of a large company.

After law school, you went to work for Skadden. What kind of law did you practice there?

I did my summer internship  in bonds and was hoping to continue in that area.  There was a great partner I was working with and I learned a lot from him. But he left the firm before I started and I was assigned to the restructuring practice. The group was only about six people, but while I was there it grew to 40-something. It became one of the biggest practices for restructuring in the country.

We focused on Chapter 11 restructuring for large corporations. It was sort of a generalist education: I worked on bankruptcy, but also tax, employment, landlord and financial matters. I was able to touch everything and get a general education. If you have a plan to be a GC, learning as much as you can early is essential.

After Skadden, I went to work for Greenberg Traurig. So I was in private practice with a Big Law firm for about 10 years, from 1998 to 2008, before I decided to go in-house.

Why did you decide to go in-house?

I wanted to put my general knowledge to good use. So I started looking for an in-house job that was near Chicago. This medical device company called Biomet  in Warsaw, Ind., had an opening, and they really liked me. I started as counsel and worked in the international arm, which meant I traveled extensively to Latin America and Asia. In that position, I learned a lot about health care and medical devices, but also about compliance and legal. And I was the only woman lawyer in the legal department in the US at the time.

After a few years, and through perseverance and doing well, I got an opportunity to transfer down to Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., to work in for Biomet 3i,the dental division — and I jumped at it. I really liked it, and I was there for almost two years when I decided to move on.

What was your next opportunity?

I moved to California in 2014 and worked in contract manufacturing at a company called Flex. I was legal counsel for Flex Health Solutions, a $3 billion division. We made medical devices all over the world and impacted thousands of patient’s lives on a daily basis. The work became especially interesting when the pandemic hit.

At the beginning of COVID, there was a call for ventilators. Because we made medical devices, our staff was still traveling — working to keep our plants, which were deemed essential, open. A couple of our clients were making ventilators, so we were ramping up as quicky as possible, trying to do the agreements, figure out the supply chain complexities and in some cases working through the defense production act to get operations underway. We worked as a great team. We got lines up from nothing to fully operational within a few months.

How did you end up at National Dentex?

I had decided the California life style was not for me and Flex and my supervisors were very supportive. So right before COVID, I moved to Austin and spent 18 months there. Then I got a call from Mike Evers about the GC position at National Dentex. I didn’t want to leave Flex, but it was a general counsel role at a dental company in Jupiter, Fla. I had to take the interview.

National Dentex was looking for a generalist with dental or health care experience. It didn’t have a legal department, but it had just merged with its biggest competitor and doubled in size. They knew it was time for a GC, but they didn’t want a big  bureaucracy. It was a perfect fit, and when they offered me the job in August 2021, I took it and moved to Jupiter.

Tell me about your role.

One thing I need to do now is focus on expanding the compliance department. NDX has grown through merger and acquisitions, so there is a need to standardize policies and procedures but also acknowledge inherent differences across 60+ labs around the US.

We have two compliance people who focus on safety and regulatory issues and training. They will become part of the legal department and we will expand  to a full compliance department. It’s important we get in place a compliance program appropriate for a company of this size.

What are some of your other priorities in your current role?

In addition to compliance, infrastructure is another big priority.  We need an appropriate contract management system. It is pretty basic — at the end of the day, you need to know where contracts are and be able to pull data when requested. Also, need to look think about a due diligence system, training platform and internal and internal procedures and training to get those in place.

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

I love working with the business. Something I hear all the time is, “You’re not like other lawyers. You get it. You understand our goals and what we’re were trying to do.” I spent a lot of time being immersed in the business and trying to guide it — focusing on what they are trying to do and how they can do it the right way. We are not the department of “No,” but the department of how to guide them correctly.

I have always been successful working with business and sales teams to try to achieve those goals — rather than being the lawyer they ignore. It’s important to build that trust and become a trusted adviser to my team. As an in-house counsel, if you can build that then you have gotten into a good place.

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

Keith Shapiro at Greenberg was a big influence and has given me a lot of advice throughout my career. When I decided to leave the law firm world, he actually helped me — advising me throughout my search. We still talk today.

Scott Offer, the GC at Flex, spent a lot of time teaching me about being a trusted advisor and understanding the importance of soft skills. You don’t learn that in law school or in law firms. You learn the basics and how to think. You go in-house and no one teaches you the soft skills, but those are what make you successful in-house. Learning emotional intelligence, how to manage is critical. He didn’t focus on CLEs. We can easily do those. We actually worked on our soft skills.

He also taught me that you have to market yourself in-house. People don’t know what you’ve accomplished. Let people know where you’re coming from and do it the right way. That’s a skill I had to learn. I have never been one to toot my own horn. My belief had always been, you just worked hard and someone will notice. That’s not how it works. We might do the hardest work on the planet and no one will notice.  I had to learn how to market myself inside a corporation. 

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

I have a dog named Ike. He’s a lab. I got him right before COVID. I spend a lot of time walking him and hanging out with him. I love to read — SciFi, action and mystery novels are my favorite and I read them very quickly. My sister Sherry and I are close. She’s a chemical engineer at Johnson & Johnson. I have a first degree black belt in tae kwon-do. And I may take up golf now that I’m back down here in Florida.

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

I’ve noticed recently that people are coming out of law school and going straight in-house. They don’t want to work for a law firm. They have a negative image of it. But law firm experience is really important for in-house work. In fact, it’s critical.

When you’re in-house, you are not learning any new law. When I have a legal question, I call an outside law firm who does this for a living and knows the updated laws. My education, my 10 years in law firms, and my understanding of where problems are have allowed me to jump into a job like this and know what to look for.

In-house means being a business person, being a manager, being an issue-spotter — but you need that background of learning the legal l basics, including how the legal process works,   and critical thinking that you get from law firm experience before you land here.

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