(312) 399-2322

A Chicagoan through and through, Eleanor Cabrere had a pretty typical childhood. She grew up in the city and south suburbs and was close to her younger brother, who was nine years her junior.

Even in her early years, Eleanor excelled academically. So, it wasn’t too surprising to her parents or anyone else when, at a very young age, she announced that she would grow up to become an anesthesiologist.

Perhaps an odd professional goal for someone so young, but she had experienced a few surgeries at that point. She always admired the anesthesiologist — who was there in the room before she went to sleep and when she woke up. She loved science so, to her, becoming an anesthesiologist made perfect sense. And her parents loved the idea of Eleanor as the first doctor in the family.

Eleanor eventually made her way to Northwestern University for college — venturing only an hour or so from her south Chicago suburban home. Northwestern didn’t have a pre-med program, so she majored in economics. As her undergrad years passed, she began expanding her experiences. Eleanor took a class taught by a law professor who used the Socratic method, which really intrigued her. She also got involved in the undergraduate law and business society.

One day, a lawyer came to speak to the society. Not only was the lawyer a woman, but she was also African American. And her presentation left a lasting impression on Eleanor. She started to think to herself, “I think I might like being a lawyer.”

Soon after, she decided instead of heading toward medical school she would enroll in law school. Although her parents were shocked at her change in plans — they were still excited to have a doctor in the family — Eleanor had made up her mind. She started law school at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.

Away from the Chicago area for the first time, Eleanor thrived at IU. She met her now-husband, a fellow law student. And they both became actively involved in the Frederick Douglas Moot Court Competition.

Eleanor discovered she loved the advocacy side of law — and being able to try to shape the law. Rather than focusing on becoming a corporate lawyer, she began to focus on litigation. 

After graduation, Eleanor litigated in private practice and served for a time as Chief Litigation Counsel for Navistar. Eventually, though, all roads led to the role she holds now, as senior vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary for Navistar, a leading manufacturer of commercial trucks, buses and engines.

We talked to Eleanor about her law career and her long tenure as a lawyer at Navistar.

Please tell me about your career path right after law school.

I had the pleasure of working for a very small boutique litigation firm. The benefit is, it’s a sink or swim environment, which I love. You don’t get the same kind of formal training you do in a large law firm. There’s training, but there’s also a lot of just figuring it all out. I enjoyed that.

Practicing at boutique law firms for eight years gave me the opportunity to do things early in my career that others may not have had the opportunity to do. I had a lot of early client contact and got to manage matters. It wasn’t your typical associate stuff. I got to actually argue significant motions and gain trial and appellate experience. Those opportunities make a significant impact.

And then there was just the variety of work. I love new challenges — doing something different I had no clue about and digging in and becoming an expert on it. The small firm atmosphere gives you greater opportunities to experience a wide variety of work.

How did you end up at Navistar?

It was around 2001, and going in-house was kind of on my radar. I was doing a lot of the same types of cases, and I was getting a little bored. I knew if I left, I would miss the courtroom. But I wanted a family. I just knew I wanted something different.

Then, a colleague got a call from a recruiter about a job, and he told me about it. The company, Navistar, was looking for a litigator in-house. But it was downtown. I was living in the western suburbs, and I wanted to be closer to home. But then I found out Navistar was about to move to Lisle. I felt like this was a sign. The rest is history.

You’ve spent your entire in-house career at Navistar. That seems unique among GCs. What makes this company  such a great fit for you?

I’m a firm believer in everything happens for a reason. I hired into the litigation group with the title of Attorney. At the time, the litigation group handled all the litigation for the company irrespective of the underlying issue. For me, that was intriguing. It was beyond  product liability — that bread-and-butter work I did so often. I like variety. And that role gave me variety.

Then I started to develop good client relationships. People would ask me to handle work outside of litigation. Generally, it was well received within the law department, and I was allowed to step outside of what I was originally hired to do. You know, when clients start to like you, they start to ask you to do anything.

Sometimes I had no clue how to work on a matter or a project. But if you ask me to do something, I will figure it out. I will get into it and get smarter and smarter and become an expert at it.

So, throughout my career at Navistar, that has been a common theme — more and more variety in my work. Some people like staying in their lane. But I like the big picture and learning about how things come together. The opportunities allowed me to work with various functions and develop long-lasting relationships. And that has kept me at Navistar for so long.

You rose through the ranks over the years — going from Attorney in 2001 to the top spot of General Counsel in 2022. Please tell me about that ascension.

In 2021, we were acquired by Traton. New management came with that acquisition. As a result, there were a lot of shifts in the company. Curt Kramer who was the GC of Navistar at the time, decided to retire. He had been grooming me to take over the role of GC, and as corporate secretary, I already had a strong relationship with management. So when that happened, I was asked to step in.

Now that Navistar is part of Traton, what are the most exciting opportunities and new challenges facing your team?

We’re in a unique circumstance. Traton owns commercial vehicle manufacturers in Germany, Sweden, Brazil and now us here in the U.S. That means Navistar is now a global company, as part of Traton, with all these different brands.

All these companies within Traton have their own law departments. That opens up opportunities for lawyers to be seconded and take advantage of opportunities in other jurisdictions. It offers opportunities for all of us to learn when we have issues in countries where we don’t normally operate.

The acquisition has changed the landscape of the way we practice and the issues that come to the table; they are different. From that standpoint, people always enjoy new and exciting opportunities with the legal issues that may arise in the post-acquisition world.

One of the challenges in the post-acquisition world is the different ways of working. We have been a North American-focused company for a long time. We’re now presented with different ways of working and communicating. English isn’t always the first language of a lot of the people we work with. There can be some cultural differences in how we work vs. other companies. Respecting differences, finding ways to communicate efficiently and granting grace and being patient is important.

What are some of your biggest priorities as GC?

My biggest priority now is trying to reshape the department to meet the current needs of the business. The industry is in the midst of change. There is a lot of regulatory focus on electrification. We are in the midst of technological advancement, which brings changes to how we do business. Many issues arise that are outside the traditional nature of our business.

Meanwhile, there are more issues around cyber security and data privacy. The geo-political environment is changing. It’s all happening at the same time. As a result, the team needs to upskill and change their mindset.

For me, I want to make sure we can meet the needs of the business as our corporate strategy is shifting. We have to pivot too — anticipating and adapting to the changing landscape.

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

It is exciting to see our products on the roadways. I love being close to and understanding the product, the business and the industry. I don’t like to do anything in a vacuum. To be an effective advisor and executive, you must understand the business, strategic priorities and the overall industry.

This is my company. These are my people. This is my business. There’s a personal aspect to what I do that I enjoy. And as a result, I’m invested in all of it — not just legal.

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

Michael Strom was an important mentor. I met him at my first job, and we are friends to this day. He was a strong advocate and supporter of me. He helped me navigate the challenges within the profession. Even though he isn’t a woman or African American, he helped me navigate the challenges that folks from those communities face within the legal profession. He gave me perspective and an understanding of the political landscape. He taught me how to choose my battles. He was someone I always could count on being in my corner and being a support system. He was someone I could ask the dumb question and not worry about judgment. He was my safe space.

There were many other active mentors throughout my career, but also silent mentors. I always watch what other people do and how they behave. I try to use that as a learning tool — analyzing the best habits of others . I test it against what I do. I take things in. Those silent mentors are very important.

What’s your life like outside of work?

I have three wonderful children. They’re 16, 17 and 21. They are all extremely active. I‘ve spent a lot of my time outside of Navistar supporting them in their personal activities and endeavors. I always had strong family support. I believe in continuing that with my kids.

I have a strong network of friends from various aspects of my life. I enjoy spending time with them. We have always supported each other along life’s journey, and we remain strong and steadfast today.

I love to exercise and be active. I like new experiences, so I love to travel. I also like to read when I have time. I am an avid football fan, in particular college football.

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

A few things:

1. Do the extra. To be an effective GC, you need to know a little about a lot and be comfortable with providing counsel without always having full information. You need broad experience. That means you must get out of your comfort zone and expand your ability to think in different ways.

2. Understand the business and be knowledgeable about the industry that you support. This ties into doing the extras. Early in my career, I started going to meetings I didn’t really need to attend. Just be there to learn and be an active listener.   When I left those meetings, I better understood the business and the big picture. That knowledge helps you give better sound and practical advice that shapes the company strategy.

3. Build internal relationships. The reason I’ve stayed at Navistar so long is the people. I love the company and its people. Building relationships is very important and it continues to help me be effective today.

4. Stay calm. Most of the time, most of what we deal with is not “life or death”— although it may seem like it is in the moment. Put circumstances in their proper perspective and be the voice of calm, reason and integrity.

Share This