November 17, 2014

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Alex Dimitrief

In so many ways, Alex Dimitrief's story epitomizes the American dream. Not knowing any English, his parents left Russia and immigrated to Montreal, then moved to Illinois. The Russian immigrants watched their son attend top schools, first, Yale, where he graduated summa cum laude, then Harvard Law School, where he graduated magna cum laude. He even landed at the White House as a White House Fellow in the Reagan Administration’s Office of Political and Intergovernmental Affairs, the youngest ever Fellow at that time.

Now Alex Dimitrief is Senior Vice President and General Counsel at GE Capital. Prior to going in-house, he was a trial lawyer at Kirkland & Ellis. His practice spanned many industries, including securities, intellectual property disputes, environmental matters, product liability, and bankruptcy litigation.

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You were at Yale as an undergraduate and earned a degree in economics and political science. Were you once considering business or politics?

I was seriously considering politics. I had a real admiration for a lot of leaders that I grew up working with. My first real boss was Ed Madigan, our congressman from Lincoln, Illinois. I always had a strong interest in public service and I thought that that was something that I’d want to do at some point. I still remain interested in public service, but I lost my appetite in politics when I saw how much of it was all about begging for money. 

I remember helping Chuck Percy, who was the senator from Illinois at that time; I got involved in one of his reelection campaigns. I’ll never forget when Ed Madigan said how sad it was to watch a guy like Chuck Percy, who was this national figure and a renowned person, have to spend five or six hours a day on the phone, calling people and dialing for dollars. 

You ultimately decided to become a lawyer. How did you make this decision?

I always like public speaking. I did debate in high school, and, as my parents would say, arguing points came a little bit too naturally to me. 

But my real passion when I was in high school and college was math and computer science. In fact, at college, I worked with a guy at the University of Illinois and we wrote an interactive game that could be played in schools by kids called “Word War.” I actually got some royalties from it. 

But my dad was convinced there wasn’t any money to be made in computers. And so he really strongly steered me towards law. There’s always a moment when I wonder about that decision not to go into high technology. 

But having become a lawyer, I love it. I think it’s a great opportunity to really do a lot of great things. 

You graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School. When you look at back at that time, what does Harvard do well in terms of preparing you for practice?

It’s a cliché, but law school really teaches you how to think. I believe that lawyers are trained very well in terms of being presented with complicated problems and measuring those problems against a set of principles that guide a rational decision that’s consistent with the rule of law and will lead to a good outcome. 

That's why legal training in law schools is good for any variety of professions, not just lawyers. Some of the best CEOs, some of the most successful private equity managers that I’ve known, have all had legal training. Law school equipped them with an approach towards distilling a complicated situation to several basic principles and coming out with the right answers. 

Who was among the professors at Harvard influenced you most?

Professor Clarke Byse. I believe he was the real world professor who served as the model for Professor Kingsfield in the Paper Chase. He was known as a very strict professor, and he was known as having a very autocratic method in his class. But beneath it all, Professor Byse cared deeply about his students. And what he really cared about was making sure you left his classes having learned how to think like a lawyer. When I was there, he taught Administrative Law. With all due respect to people who specialize in Administrative Law, there probably aren’t many topics that are more boring, but Professor Byse was able to bring it to life because it was really more about how to reach decisions in the right way. He took the approach: how should federal agencies afford people due process when they’re reaching decisions about things that affect their lives? 

Although the cases were dry, although the statutes we were dry, the discussions we had really were animated. It showed what a great professor could do in terms of engaging with students and getting your students to really think. 

You were a White House Fellow in the Reagan Administration’s Office of Political and Intergovernmental Affairs. What did you do? Are there highlights?

The White House Fellows program was a remarkable opportunity. I was 27, and I believe I was the youngest ever White House Fellow as of that time. It had two aspects to it: the first was the actual job part of it, which I’d say was 90 to 95 percent of what I did. I was fortunate enough to be assigned to Mitch Daniels, who at the time was the special assistant to president Reagan for political and intergovernmental affairs. 

Mitch served as President Reagan’s liaison to governors, mayors, and state representatives. He also served as President Reagan’s liaison to the Republican Party. 

It was really about working with local governments to make sure their considerations and needs were being taken into account by the federal government, in terms of shaping policies. For a Republican administration that believed in federalism, it was a pretty exciting time to be there. 

I was also helping the Republican candidates for governor or the Senate get in synch with President Reagan’s policies and helping to communicate President Reagan’s policies to the Republican party. 

Mitch was an incredibly capable person. This was a relatively early stage in his career and I got to see him do remarkable things there. He was able to bring people along by being persuasive and setting a strong example. It’s no accident that he went on from there to be a senior executive at Eli Lilly and the Hudson Institute. And then of course, he came back to Washington to be President Bush’s OMB director and then went on to be a very successful governor of Indiana. 

A real highlight was to see President Reagan. I was fortunate enough to be able to interact with the president on a number of occasions. The best highlight had to be when I was able to introduce President Reagan to my dad. President Reagan knew I was a first generation American. He said to my dad how great it was that somebody could come to this country not knowing English, and then 27 years later, have their son graduate from great schools and be able to work for the president of the United States. My dad was just smiling from ear to ear. 

What country are you from originally? 

I was born in Montreal, and then we moved to Illinois when I was about a year-and-a-half old. But my parents were both Russian. My mom immigrated right after World War II, and my dad came over to Canada in the early 1950s, and they met in Montreal. 

You were also an Honors Intern at the Department of Justice

I was only there for three months, but I worked in the solicitor general’s office. I hadn’t even passed the bar exam yet, but I just dived in and got involved in three or four cases involving federalism and abortion rights. 

It was my first exposure to the intersection between political appointees and the career professionals who work at the Justice Department, and that was fascinating to witness. 

Eventually you ended up in private practice at Kirkland & Ellis from 1986 until 2007 as a trial lawyer. What did you enjoy about that private practice area and is there a case that stands out from that time?

What I enjoyed the most were two things. I had great teams. As I became a more senior lawyer, I really enjoyed working with young lawyers and watching them put on their first witness and cross-examine their first witness. 

I also enjoyed the writing. I’m one of these lawyers who believes that writing is increasingly becoming a lost art. If there’s one comment I have for young lawyers who are entering the profession today, writing is 90 percent of what we do. It’s your chance to influence judges before the first argument. It’s your chance to make a first impression with your case. 

What makes a great trial attorney?

Integrity and authenticity. It’s owning up to the weaknesses in your case and being able to transparently put the strengths and weaknesses out there in a way that persuades people to come along with you. You have to be quick on your feet; you have to be articulate; but I think the most important things are integrity and authenticity. 

The way that I always explain it to people is that, in the course of the trial, when a judge needs to know what’s really the answer to something, you want the judge to look to you. And if you can pass that test, you’ve done a good job as a trial attorney. 

In 2007, you left private practice and joined GE as a vice president for litigation and legal policy. What made you decide to go in-house?

It was something that I had never really planned to do. I was very happy at Kirkland & Ellis. Then out of the blue, I got this opportunity. I really had to think hard about it. I made the switch for two reasons: I had been able to accomplish a lot of things while I was at Kirkland & Ellis and so I was ready for a change. I also looked at GE as an opportunity to switch from one great institution to another. I’ve never looked backed since. 

What’s the biggest difference between in-house and private practice?

I suppose that when I was a younger lawyer, I would have said an in-house practice seemed easier. Less stress, better hours. I’m sorry to say that’s no longer the case. I think the biggest difference, and it’s going to sound negative but it really isn’t, is that you go from a law firm where it’s all about the lawyers and what you do, to a company where you are an enabling function in the most noble sense of the word. We help the company do things in legal ways that honor our ethical obligations to all of our stakeholders. 

What advice would you give to a lawyer in private practice who is thinking of going in-house?

I’d tell the lawyer that she or he ought to be sure that you're going to a company you can believe in, you can be proud of and passionate about. 

In 2011, you were appointed as vice president and general counsel of GE Energy. How is that position different from your previous one?

When I first went in-house, it was the flipside of what I was doing at Kirkland & Ellis. I was in charge of litigation for GE and all its business units, the compliance team, and internal investigations. 

When I became general counsel of Energy, I became responsible for all legal aspects of the overall business strategy. And the great thing about the Energy job was that, at that time, we had a lot of acquisitions, joint ventures, and other business deals.

The luxury of being the general counsel of the business is you get to play offense as well as defense. Now I'm at GE Capital and here too I help formulate overall strategy as well as litigation strategy. 

You wrote a chapter about billing for the book, Successful Partnering Between Inside and Outside Counsel. Can you briefly summarize your main points?

The point I tried to make was that too many law firms make the mistake of relegating their budgeting and billing to clerical assistants, and the lawyers themselves never look at budgets or at bills. They view them as a nuisance. And boy, they’re making a big mistake when they do that. 

I’m willing to bet you that 95 percent of the people who are reading this interview don’t review bills very carefully before they go out to their clients, and that’s just an enormous mistake because the care and attention that you pay to these issues return dividends. 

I also have a little private campaign going on to displace the hourly rate, but it’s not because I think the hourly rate is inherently evil. I think there’s something a little bit off about a business that bills itself and gets paid on time alone as opposed to talent. 

How have you benefited from your membership in the ABA, especially the Business Law Section?

The meetings that I have been able to attend provide a chance to hear some of the best lawyers who are out there talk about the big issues that are confronting us. 

I will say it frustrates me to no end when I’m on a panel and I look out and I see everybody reading their Blackberrys and iPhones. I’m guilty of that too sometimes. But we as a profession ought to take a collective pledge to leave our iPhones or Blackberrys back at the office when we go to meetings like that so we can really benefit from interacting with each other. 

You served as a member of the board of directors of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago, which educates poor children that invites and encourages them to become active citizens. How did you get involved and what did you enjoy about this experience? 

I’ve always had a passion for education and the power of ideas. A great strength of the United States is that we resolve issues, for the most part, through the strength of ideas. The Foundation is about educating children about the power of ideas and the privileges that they have as citizens of the United States where democracy decides things. It’s just a tremendous organization. It also empowers public school teachers by providing curriculums and training to help teachers educate kids. 

You're also a big supporter of the Ronald McDonald House. How did you become involved?

That goes back to my days at Kirkland & Ellis. McDonald’s was an important client of mine and I quickly came to believe in the mission of the Ronald McDonald House Charities. They do an enormous service to families, by making housing and comfortable facilities available for families to stay near their children who are getting treatment in hospitals. 

When my wife and I moved out to Connecticut to take the new job at GE, I was in search of a charity. I sought out the Ronald McDonald House in New York, and I’m glad that they welcomed me and they put me on their board. I love the mission of the House. 

I also hear you’re a huge St. Louis Cardinal and Chicago Blackhawks fan. I hear you have season tickets to the Cardinals.

When I tell people that I have season tickets to the St. Louis Cardinals, even though I’ve never lived in St. Louis a day in my life, people look at me like I have a hole in my head. I can blame this one on my wife, because I happened to pay a fortune for a ticket to the World Series game in 2004. My wife said that if I was going to pay that much to go to one game, then I ought to just buy season tickets. I actually took her up on it. I think Jill regrets having suggested it. 

Thank you so much for your time.