This is the first in an occasional question-and-answer series that features leaders in corporate counsel and compliance, including General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officers.
BarkerGilmore recently sat down with Robert Masters, Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer of Acadia Realty Trust. The company specializes in the acquisition, redevelopment and operation of retail and urban mixed-use properties. Masters has more than 30 years of experience in real estate and has been General Counsel at Acadia since 1998. He shared his advice about what it takes to be General Counsel and why aspiring GCs should take more risks.
Bob Barker: What motivated you to aspire to the role of General Counsel?
Robert Masters: I would describe it as ambition in general. I felt like I was capable of doing more than I was doing. I think I always, in my own mind, challenge myself to try and do more and see if there was a limitation on what I could learn and what I could do. I think that's probably what motivated me more than just being the top dog in the legal profession. It was the challenge of trying to do more.
BB: Having been a General Counsel for 20 years, would you recommend this executive role to others?
RM: The short answer is yes, of course. I’ve been very happy in my job. It's not an easy role and there's no doubt a lot of frustrations in the role, too.
You have to stay true to your job responsibility, meaning if you get involved in the business side of the company, don't be surprised if somebody turns around and says, ‘That's not your position, that's not your role.’ You'll always be the lawyer and find out a way to get things done. We have a saying here at Acadia: Protect, serve and expedite. Not necessarily in that order, of course. There are days when protection is important, there are days when service is important and there are many days when the word of the day is expedite. Just get it done.
BB: You recently hired a new General Counsel. What are you passing on to help him succeed?
RM: A lot of the advice has to do with the people we work with. We will talk about how to deal with a situation where you have somebody with some authority...and they want to do something and you think it's an important decision or you think they're wrong. How do you address that situation? Do you go to that person? Do you go to that person's superior? Is it a combination, or is it just simply saying, ‘That's just not the right way to do it, I'm not going to do it?’
I would say it’s more understanding the culture, that's a really critical part. If there's any advice, it's to know the people you're working with and understand what they're looking for and what they need. In the bigger picture sense, it’s really about understanding the culture of the company you're coming into.
BB: In your opinion, what makes a General Counsel effective?
RM: Aside from the legal skills required for your areas of work, I think the ability to mentally step back and evaluate things with a certain amount of maturity.
Civil cases can be very emotional, so it’s important to have that ability to keep your cool.
Finally, it’s important to have the respect of your peers, your subordinates and the decision makers in the company so when they come to you, they come to you with confidence. The more confidence they have in you, the more they're going to come to you.
BB: How can lawyers prepare themselves for the role of General Counsel?
RM: I went to college without a strong plan for getting a job when I got out. Making money was not what I was motivated by at that time. I don't think (my generation) had the same anxieties, and we didn't feel as compelled to stick to a straight line in our careers the way I think people do now.
I'm a big believer in people having some life experience and doing lots of different things as a lawyer. I feel I was fortunate. It wasn't that I set out to be a General Counsel one day. It happened to me, but I had a lot of different experiences as a lawyer and was eventually able to fall back on those prior experiences.
For example, I worked for a firm that was primarily a bankruptcy firm for a couple years. Although I didn't do bankruptcy there, I was exposed to it.
As my career progressed I found myself working on many bankruptcies over the years, both as a landlord and at the banking world, as a creditor and a lender. If you spend all your career working in one particular area, you'll become the world's greatest expert in something or other. But generally speaking, the General Counsel doesn’t need to be the world's greatest expert in anything. He does have to know something about a lot of things.
BarkerGilmore is a legal recruitment firm that specializes in hiring in house counsel with both the skill set and the cultural fit for companies of all sizes. For more advice on hiring General Counsel that is the best possible fit for your corporate culture, download our free guide, “How to Recruit Top General Counsel.”