Marla Persky most recently served as Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary at Boehringer Ingelheim USA, one of the world’s 20 leading pharmaceutical companies. A key member of the executive management team reporting to the CEO, Marla was a director of the company and several of its subsidiaries and oversaw a 70+ person department with responsibility for legal, environmental, health and safety, and information, governance and security, with a budget of over $100M. Previously Marla served in numerous business and legal positions at Baxter International, the most recent of which was Acting General Counsel and Corporate Secretary. At Baxter, she managed global legal services, was General Manager of an international medical device business, led international crisis management teams, acquired and integrated international businesses, and designed and implemented legal strategies to manage global mass torts. She also practiced with the Chicago firm of Lurie, Sklar & Simon. Before entering the practice of law, Marla worked in sales and marketing for the Colgate-Palmolive Company. Marla serves on the boards of Xeris Pharmaceuticals, Inc., a specialty pharmaceutical company, Text IQ, an AI legal software company, and YGEIA Group, a medical technology company. She is a frequent presenter on such topics as leadership principles, mentoring, diversity, crisis management, and negotiation techniques. Marla adds her expertise to the strategic counsel, coaching, leadership development, succession planning, and other services that BarkerGilmore advisors provide to legal and compliance departments, CEOs, and boards across the country.
What are the hot button issues in today’s legal departments?
While legal challenges continually change, management challenges remain the same. Today’s General Counsel must be vigilant about ensuring that their department is valued and seen as a business partner and enabler, rather than an overly cautious barrier to business. Legal executives struggle with creating and maintaining a department that flexes with evolving business needs and priorities of the company, while still providing challenging and meaningful work to keep members of their team engaged and motivated. Finally, there is the relentless pressure to do more with less – fewer people and smaller budgets.
What are some of the challenges you faced in your executive role and how did you resolve them?
Well, the challenges I just identified as hot button issues were certainly ever-present in my GC roles. Additionally, I faced CEO changes, shake-ups of the management team and board of directors, crushing litigation, disruptive M&A, the need to integrate new businesses and legal departments, and the transformation of the legal function to maximize talent and better fit evolving business needs. I sought to ensure that all members of my department were seen and operated as valued business partners. As a result, I learned to balance risk with reward and to help senior leadership reach the best decisions possible without saying “no.”
In what ways did you make the most significant impact on the companies you served?
I made sure that the companies for which I worked successfully utilized laws and regulations as a sword and a shield. The law is a tool that business can use to reach its goals. The legal department is a shield to ensure that legal and regulatory issues and challenges do not disrupt the company’s ability to conduct business and reach its goals. Additionally, I worked successfully with senior leadership to help all levels of employees understand that cutting corners and operating on the edge were not wise business practices.
What do you think are the best “words to live by” for GCs?
You must approach your role with a business mindset. I think that these words are now truer than ever, as business executives and shareholders expect the legal department to provide creative solutions that can add to the bottom line.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about diversifying the legal profession at all levels – particularly in the C-Suite and on law firm/legal department management teams. For example, throughout my career and even now, I try to help women succeed in the business of law by enhancing their knowledge of and acuity with financial drivers, client development, and leadership principles. Many years of mentoring and coaching have allowed me to share my experience and observations to assist other attorneys and professionals, as well as law firms and in-house legal departments, in enhancing their diversity and inclusion quotient.
How have you helped others succeed?
I help people develop authentic, sustainable approaches to problem solving, prioritization, leadership, and talent development. For example, when I coach others aspiring to a General Counsel position, I help them to understand and practice the skills necessary to be successful in that role, from presenting themselves and thinking as a successful General Counsel to creating a strategy for success and defining the objectives that will allow them to implement it. I always try to listen, share, and advise by drawing on my own experiences as a legal and business executive.
What do you wish you knew in your first in-house role?
I think the most valuable information that you learn is through observation over time. What I learned through experience in the corporate world, and I didn’t know early on in my first in-house role, is that demonstrably adding value is the easiest way to get and keep a seat at the table.
Of what accomplishments are you most proud?
Two things – first, that most of those who directly reported to me have become GCs and second, many of the business leaders with whom I worked told me that they made better decisions with me than without me.
What do you think differentiates top GCs from others?
Top GCs build bridges between factions within an organization and ensure that all sides are heard. The best GCs usually are not wedded to an idea or outcome and, therefore, can help teams (legal and business) reach the best decision.
What is typically the most significant area for development for a GC?
Balancing the necessity of being seen as part of the business management team while still maintaining a level of autonomy is often difficult for GCs. It is a balancing act because you represent the company, not an individual, but can’t be viewed by leadership as the “hall monitor.”
In your role as a BarkerGilmore advisor, where do you see yourself adding the most value to GCs?
The GC position is a lonely one. Who do you talk to? Who do you bounce ideas off of and seek advice from? Outside counsel provides legal support, but not leadership or management guidance. The CEO and Board look to you for answers. Many things can’t be discussed with peers from other companies due to confidentiality issues. This is where I and other GC coaches at BarkerGilmore step in. We are paid friends, advisors, and foils for sitting General Counsel. We understand the privileged nature of the information that our clients bring up with us and honor those confidences. I have walked in the shoes of my coaching clients. There is virtually nothing they confront that I have not either dealt with myself or worked with others to resolve. I am a safe haven to discuss ideas, challenges, fears, and goals.