Deborah Pond grew up on Long Island, New York. Academically, she excelled — doing well though all her formative years in school.
She chose to attend Duke University and studied psychology and political science. But as graduation became closer, and many of her peers were interviewing with companies for jobs, those opportunities did not seem interesting to her. Pond considered graduate school for psychology, but her mom — who, herself, had just gone back to college to complete her degree — thought a psychologist’s income would be unreliable and encouraged Pond to consider other career paths. So, she shifted course — setting her sights on law.
“I decided to go to law school because I figured I liked to read and to learn about new things,” she says. “That was literally the extent of the analysis. Luckily, it ended up being a pretty good fit for me.”
A good fit is an understatement. Pond was offered a partial scholarship to Emory University School of Law in Atlanta and, happy to stay in the south and to have assistance with the costs of law school, she accepted. She excelled in the program, which had a heavy emphasis on litigation — a practice she was initially drawn to.
Although litigation didn’t turn out to be her passion, Pond’s early career set her on course to become a highly successful lawyer who one day would head up the legal team as senior vice president and general counsel of Coca-Cola Beverages Florida.
What did you do right after law school?
I had been a summer clerk at two big law firms in Atlanta — Troutman Sanders (now Troutman Pepper) and Alston & Bird. I was drawn to the litigation teams. After law school, I accepted the permanent job offer from Troutman Sanders and joined the litigation group. Although I enjoyed the people at the firm, if I were older and wiser at the time, I would have realized I wasn’t going to enjoy a litigation practice.
Why wasn’t litigation right for you?
I didn’t know what working in litigation at a big law firm would be like. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who worked as a lawyer. My law school program had a heavy emphasis on litigation at that time. I had some success with moot court, and it felt challenging. Always inclined to accept a challenge, and drawn to the people in the litigation group, I accepted the offer from Troutman Sanders. But once I started, I realized litigation is essentially a well-organized fight, and that wasn’t how I wanted to spend my career.
How did your career progress from there?
I worked in the firm’s litigation group for about four years after law school. But I was re-evaluating what I wanted to do with my life. I was still in my 20s and thought, “There’s no way I can do this for the next 30 to 40 years.” I also knew that someday I wanted a family, and I didn’t see how I could maintain the kind of work schedule I had at the firm and parent in the way I knew I’d want to.
I considered going back to school and getting a graduate degree in psychology — I even took my GRE! I also got job offers from smaller law firms and domestic relations firms, thinking I might enjoy that more. But then I got an offer to be an in-house attorney at The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) for a transactional practice. I figured I’d give that a try before hanging up my legal degree. It turned out that I loved it!
You went in-house at Coca-Cola early in your career, left for private practice, then rejoined Coke a few years later. How did all of that happen?
It wasn’t so much a choice to leave The Coca-Cola Company to go back into private practice, but an opportunity to live on St. Simons Island, off the coast of Georgia, and lead a quieter life with my young kids. I joined a firm there, but TCCC quickly asked me to help them with some work. For four years, I lived on St. Simons Island (which I absolutely loved) and mostly continued to do work for TCCC. We then moved back to Atlanta, in part because I had a great opportunity to rejoin TCCC as an in-house attorney again, this time supporting the global marketing team. That work could be a little crazy, but it was very fun and interesting.
Once I was officially back at TCCC, I worked on the global marketing legal team for a couple of years. There was an opportunity to lead a legal team supporting the operations of the U.S. business, where I had worked all the years prior to joining the global marketing legal team. I had supported many different parts of the business over the years, but this role supported the U.S. supply chain. I thought it might be dry and uninteresting, especially coming from global marketing, but it was actually fascinating, and a tremendous part of the U.S. business.
How did you go from TCCC to Coca-Cola Beverages Florida?
After a couple of years in that role, TCCC began reconfiguring its relationship with the U.S. bottlers, which are, for the most part, completely separate companies from TCCC. TCCC owns the brands, but in the U.S., the bottlers manufacture and distribute most of the products. When you see big red Coca-Cola trucks on the roads, they are the local bottler’s trucks.
In this reconfiguration process, a couple of new bottlers were admitted into the U.S. Coca-Cola system for the first time in 60 years. One of those new entrants was approved to acquire the Florida Coca-Cola bottler assets, and there was a lot of buzz in the system and in the industry about this new ownership.
The new bottler was a startup and was hiring a leadership team, including a general counsel to lead the legal work.
I realized that by this point, I had supported every part of the U.S. business at TCCC, which made me a great candidate for the role. And in this role, I would have purview over the entire legal function of the new Florida bottler all at once, rather than one geography or line of business at a time, as occurs at larger companies. As a member of the Executive Leadership Team, I would also be at the table with the other executives leading the business from the top.
I joined Coca-Cola Beverages Florida in 2015, as general counsel, to help start up the company and form a legal team and legal processes. Some thought that going from a large, publicly traded global company to a medium-sized, privately held regional company wouldn’t be challenging enough. Little did they know! I thought I would learn a lot in this role. In fact, I have learned so much more than I could have imagined on both the business side and the legal side.
What are some of your biggest priorities in your current role?
My two biggest priorities are first, for the legal team to provide excellent legal support to the company that best balances the business goals and the legal risks. And secondly, I work hard to ensure that the members of the legal team enjoy their work and learn and grow as lawyers and professionally.
What do you love most about being an in-house lawyer?
I absolutely love being directly looped into the business. I tell lawyers interested in moving into in-house jobs that what makes us good at it is understanding how the business operates and its goals and priorities in the long term. That’s what differentiates us from most external counsel. We can all know the law itself, but what good in-house lawyers do is apply that law to their company’s business and priorities in a (hopefully) seamless manner that can best accelerate the business.
Please tell me about the mentors you had growing up in your legal career.
In the earlier years of my career, I was always given very positive feedback that I did good work; that I was high potential. But I never received any feedback about what I could do better. And at that time in my life, I wasn’t brave enough to ask.
At one point, I had a new manager. In my first performance review, he said all the usual positive things about my work, but actually gave me something to work on. He told me that I didn’t have to run as much by him as I did; that I knew what I was doing and to run with it. That was eye-opening to me. From my perspective, I was keeping him looped in out of respect, not because I felt I needed him to check my work. But to hear that he viewed it differently, and that he was confident in me, increased my confidence and independence tremendously.
From there, I would later receive higher level positions and become a leader of other lawyers. But I think it was his push that moved me into a state of greater independence and leadership.
Describe your life outside of work.
I have three kids who have been the light of my life: a daughter in grad school, a son in college and my youngest just started high school. I have spent many, many years supporting them with school and shuttling them around to their various sports and activities. As I see the end of that era approaching, I am so grateful to have had these kid-intensive years — even though there were many days I felt I couldn’t do it all. But on the days that I felt like I wasn’t doing anything well enough, neither the parenting or the lawyering, I found that my mother had been right: Things seem better in the morning. Anyone who has been on this path knows there are highs and lows. When it seems like too much, in either direction, it tends to soon even out again.
I also love to work out, and CrossFit has been my workout of choice for many years. It’s like the way we used to have recess and playground at school. CrossFit is my recess and playground.
What advice would you give a young lawyer who wants to be a GC someday?
I would recommend doing your current job really well. If you do that well, other opportunities will be presented to you. And take offered opportunities to learn the next thing, even if it’s not a promotion and may not appear to be a direct path to where you think you want to go. You might change your mind as you have new experiences. And being knowledgeable and excellent at a broad base of matters will give you more options over time.