August 15, 2017

MEMBER SPOTLIGHT: An Interview with Anne Gwal

If there’s a through line in Anne Gwal’s legal career, it’s that she’s spent most of her years in-house. What’s been less constant are the numerous industries in which she has worked: medical devices, home health care, banking, and electric utility and energy. “The one thing that I can say, with respect to all my mergers in the past and in my career, was that I learned to adapt,” says Gwal, assistant general counsel at Exelon, a Fortune 100 electric utility, energy, and generation company based in Chicago and Washington, DC.

Gwal is very involved in the community and bar associations. She served as President of the South Asian Bar Association of North America for 2015 through 2016 and currently is on SABA’s Board of Governors and National Advisory Council. She’s also been involved with the ABA’s Business Law Section, serving as Chair of the In-house Counsel Task Force and Co-Chair of the Corporate Counsel Committee. She will join this Section’s Council in the fall.

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What inspired you to become a lawyer?

I am of South Asian heritage, and growing up, it was presumed that I would be a doctor. I realized it wasn’t going to work for me. So after college, I worked for a year and a half as paralegal in a law firm because I was interested in the law. As I started to be a part of the legal community, I realized it fulfilled my penchant for justice and the rule of law.

Very early in your career, you obtained an in-house position. How difficult was that to do?

When I graduated in the mid-’90s, it was a difficult time to get any job in the legal profession. I worked for a small boutique firm that focused on family law, but it certainly wasn’t what I was interested in doing so I continued to look for a position. I handled and managed some complex litigation successfully for a medical device company. The CEO offered me a very unique opportunity to help him build an in-house legal department, where one did not exist.

We built the company from $30 million in revenue to $300 million in revenue over the course of four years. We went through a lot of mergers of smaller medical companies and health-care companies and we became a one-stop health-care shop. It was a very rewarding experience, but as with many companies, it was one merger too many. At some point, the VPs and lawyers became extraneous.

After that, you transitioned into banking and mergers and acquisitions at a company called Axiom. How did you reposition yourself?

Axiom was going through a potential acquisition, so I was hired specifically to help them position themselves for sale.

Was that because you had merger and acquisition experience from your previous job?

I’m sure that played a large role. The good thing about legal skills is that they are, for the most part, transient and able to be used in different industries, especially if it’s early in your career. You have the ability to take your skill set and move from one position to another or one industry to another, with the exception of maybe certain industries like pharma and highly regulated needs. At Axiom, the sale was successful, and I was offered a position at the new company. But since they were in the midst of a sale, it wasn’t necessarily attractive for me. At that point, I had already interviewed with a utility company.

One of the judges that I clerked for during one summer in law school said to me that the first day of a new job should be the first day you start looking for your next job. So I’ve always been, and not in a negative way, proactively looking ahead to advance. I think that’s really important to do.

What advice would you give to a new graduate who’d like to go in-house?

Make sure you are looking at the big picture and don’t be afraid of the nontraditional path. There are so many other opportunities, if you are willing to take some of the risk of those opportunities. You might end up in a position that you really love and have a passion for.

I also would advise any new graduate, whether you’re going to a firm, academia, or a corporate department, to pursue your interest. Pursue what you have a passion for, and you can’t go wrong.

In 1999, you moved to Exelon where you are now an assistant general counsel. How did you reposition yourself so you could work in the electric utility and energy industry?

I was looking for a very stable industry. At that time, the company had just merged with Atlantic City Electric to form Conectiv. This was before Enron. Then Enron happened, and that industry blew up. There were definitely some moments that I thought, “Wow, I come to an industry and it’s blowing up. What’s happening here?” Fortunately, I survived the first merger that Conectiv had with Pepco, which is the Potomac Electric Power company in DC and also in Maryland. Now I am part of the Exelon team.

I had thought I was positioning myself for a stable industry, and then it turned out it wasn’t as stable as I thought. And then it turned out that it didn’t matter because it was still exciting and there was a lot of innovation happening within the electric utility and energy industries.

What are three things you’d recommend to someone who is in-house and wants to be promoted?

The first few years, I put my head down. I believe I acted like most new associates act: I produced good work product. To do that, you need to go out and meet your internal clients. And by that, I mean your client is your company. Meet the engineers, marketing people, corporate communications, and fellow employees—you need to get involved with company endeavors.

It’s very important to navigate the company culture, to know what that culture is, and to be adaptable. That is key in making sure you position yourself for promotions and for success within an organization.

What do you like about working in-house? What don’t you like?

There’s not much that I don’t like about working in-house. There is a perception that in-house lawyers are generalists and they don’t have subject-matter experience. I can tell you that the in-house legal practice has changed over the years, and in-house legal departments are becoming very lean. There’s more pressure on in-house lawyers to do a lot of the work themselves, as opposed to just managing the work and sending the work outside. There are a number of in-house lawyers who have as much expertise in certain areas as outside counsel. In addition, they understand their company.

That’s a real change, isn’t it?

Yes. It varies, of course. If you’re with a smaller company, you’re basically a jack-of-all-trades, trying to manage anything that comes across your desk. For instance, I was at Pepco Holding Inc., which had a legal department of 25 or so lawyers. At Exelon, we have a legal department of 125 lawyers. At Pepco, I was essentially one of maybe four or five transactional lawyers, and now I am one of many transactional lawyers. Being with a larger company with a larger legal department affords you the opportunity to focus your practice area on certain areas.

What I like about working in-house is the diversity of the work. As an attorney, you have a role in helping to build a successful business. You are embedded with your internal clients, with the business folks and your business partners—you are a member of our team so you add to shareholder value. You have the ability to help your company be an excellent corporate citizen, a community partner. You can effectuate positive goals to build that business.

You’ve been very involved with the South Asian Bar Association of North America. In 2015–2016, you served as president. During that term, what did you set out to achieve?

First some background. I was the 13th president of the South Asian Bar Association of North America. We have two Canadian chapters, 26 in total. One of the things I wanted to do was bring the organization into its second decade in a real way and expand its reach. Our mission is to serve South Asian legal professionals throughout North America, and also be a resource for the South Asian community and promote civil rights and access to justice and provide resources, in terms of professional growth to our members and, of course, to promote diversity and inclusion.

Specifically, my platform was to call out to the senior members of our South Asian Bar and make sure they reach out to the more junior members. When I took on the role as president, I spoke about how it is uniquely a corporate counsel obligation to hire outside counsel, and if it makes sense, to staff our projects with diverse associates and to try to drive change from within and from your position.

You are now on the Board of Governors and National Advisory Counsel for SABA, what are your goals?

They’re a continuation of what I was doing during my year as president. In my year as president, we were involved with many issues including the nomination process for the next Supreme Court Justice as well as other seminal issues such as race relations and diversity. Our roles change as the needs change of the country and/or our membership. What I wanted to do was to continue to, again, expand our reach, build our name as a resource. If no one knows you’re there, they don’t know to reach out to you.

At our last convention, SABA had a lobby day. We sent 50, 60 representatives to members of Congress and spoke to them about our interests. The main goal was to let them know we’re here; we’re looking at what you’re doing with your political agenda, and we’re going to be weighing in and letting you know what we want for the future, not just for South Asians but for the country because a lot of these issues affect so many different groups.

You’ve also been very involved with the ABA, including Co-Chair of the Corporate Counsel Committee and Chair of the In-House Counsel Task Force. What did you accomplish in either position that you are most proud of?

I’ve been with the ABA, first as an ambassador. I have a real love for the Business Law Section, the work that they do in reaching out to its members and providing excellent content. I’m proud of increasing our numbers at the Corporate Counsel Committee. I have found that the ABA Business Law Section provides curated and tailored resources that corporate counsel can use, and not just for subject-matter expertise, not just for specific areas of the law but also for soft skills, such as how to advance in your organization?

We’ve put on some pretty great programs at the Corporate Counsel Committee. A recent program was a Lean Six Sigma program, which focused on efficiencies and project management. We also put on programs for corporate counsel about what to consider when looking to hire outside counsel, and programs for outside counsel—what in-house counsel are looking for.

What has been the value of the ABA to you personally?

For me, it’s been building that network of colleagues and peers and folks that have more experience than I do, and that’s the majority of the ABA. It’s also learning and honing my leadership skills. I am so thankful that I have been chosen to be in a leadership position because I’ve learned so much.

What could the legal profession, including law schools, do to become more diverse?

It’s so important to walk the walk. It sounds very cliché, but it is very important that there’s a focus on diversity and inclusion and that there are actual structured programs within your law firm. The more diverse you are, the more you’re getting your ideas from a lot of different places, and that’s a recipe for success, whether you’re a law firm or a corporate legal department or a law school. Your approach to diversity has to be meaningful, not just putting together a diversity inclusion committee. Make sure there is a mandate to actually interview the minority candidates or women candidates and veteran candidates.

If you start holding people accountable for meeting certain benchmarks of what the company’s goals are or the firm’s goals are for diversity, then you might be able to effectuate change in that way.

What do you do for fun?

I love to write. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I have been writing a lot of children’s stories lately and children songs. I like fiction. When I write, I don’t really notice the time passing and I have to set my alarm when I’m doing something creative so I stop at some point.

I like to spend time with my family—my niece, my nephews, and my sisters. Also, I’m living with a brain tumor and doing very well so I’m getting back to the things I love to do that are more active. I love to travel and be in or near the water. So I am getting back to scuba diving.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s important for attorneys to do pro bono work and get involved with their communities and address the needs of their particular community. Exelon has incredible pro bono programs. I’ve been involved with Wills for Seniors and will soon participate in a homeless advocacy project. I think it’s very important as lawyers and professionals to be able to give back in that respect.

Thank you so much!