February 12, 2015

From the Courtroom to the C-Suite

Hannah Hayes

By any stretch of the imagination, running a community mental health center for women and children in Detroit is a long way from running a global distribution center that oversees 13,000 employees in 190 countries.

But for Pamela Carter, the path was a logical one in a career that took her from serving in the Indiana governor’s office to becoming the first African American woman attorney general, and, ultimately, to being the first woman to lead one of four business units at Cummins Inc., a Fortune 500 company based in Columbus, Indiana, that designs, manufactures, and sells engine and filtration products—a position from which she has announced she will retire in April.

“I decided to go into corporate work so I could get a different perspective,” says Carter, who went to the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law in Indianapolis after several years at the clinic in Detroit. While moving from traditional law to public service to corporate governance may seem a stretch to many, Carter says an underlying belief in wanting to make a difference in the world was the common thread.

Lawyers who move to the operational side of things are not rare: In 2012, 46 of the CEOs on the Fortune 500 list had gone to law school. Women in the “C-suite” are seeing less progress, however. In a report issued by Catalyst in 2013, the numbers of women in the executive level in Fortune 500 companies remained stagnant for four years in a row. As of 2013, only 14.6 percent of executive officer positions were held by women, and women represented only 8 percent of top earners. Two-thirds of the companies interviewed had no women-of-color directors.

For women with a taste for business, moving to the operations side of a company can offer a change and a challenge. More and more law schools are offering dual degrees allowing students to finish in three or four years with both a JD and an MBA. But even without going to business school, often growing up with a firm can get you on the inside track.

Different Suite—Same Narrative

Before becoming general counsel for Cummins in 1997, Carter had been in private practice with Cummins as her client. Prior to that, she worked primarily in the public sector, beginning as a securities lawyer for the Indiana secretary of state and then moving to the state’s department of health and human services before serving as Governor Evan Bayh’s deputy chief of staff. In 1992, she was tapped to run for attorney general and became the first African American woman elected to that office in any state.

While this type of career trajectory may seem unusually broad, Carter says an underlying desire to make a difference in the world was the common thread.

“What I learned is that irrespective of the platform, I was trying to contribute professionally, and whether in the community or the legal profession, I wanted to make a difference,” she says.

Carter helped write model securities law with a goal to hold people accountable. As the head of health policy and human services in Indiana, she was instrumental in reorganizing state government at the time and instituted many structures and programs that remain in existence today. At Cummins, she negotiated a consent decree with the federal government that led to greener diesel engines. “With everything I did, it was another platform to help make things better.”

According to Carter, being trained as a lawyer “was a huge gift. Lawyers look at a maze of facts and figure out how to get to some conclusion—crystalizing it and briefing about what outcomes could result. I don’t see that widely as a skill you get from business school.” She adds that lawyers have to work with a broad range of people from case to case.

Every career move brings challenges. In addition to learning the research and development side, Carter had the added challenge of working overseas when she was she was a general manager of Europe, Middle East, and Africa business and operations for Cummins and stationed in Belgium. Adapting to a new culture and language compounded the learning curve. “It was a great ‘business school’ for a student like me who likes hands-on learning—I loved every moment of it.”

Dual Degree, Dual Opportunities

For Jennifer Sherman, the choice of going into business or law was a big question after graduating from the University of Michigan. “After business school, I really debated about whether to go into the practice of law or business; most of my peers went directly into business.” Ultimately, she went to the legal side and worked for a midsized law firm in Chicago practicing commercial contract disputes, labor law, bankruptcy, securities, and collections.

When offered an in-house opportunity, she took the job. “I worked closely with the chief financial officer and deals’ team and enjoyed that aspect.” As that deal ended, Sherman found herself struggling once again with whether to remain in law or business.

In 1994, she joined Oakbrook, Illinois-based Federal Signal Corporation, a global manufacturer of environmental vehicles and related safety equipment, as general counsel. “While I would be in the law department, they promised I’d be heavily involved in the business end.” She was appointed general counsel, vice president, and secretary in 2004; chief administrative officer in 2010; and chief operating officer in April 2014.

“I knew the company pretty well and always enjoyed the operations side,” said Sherman, who notes that she asked to work in the most troubled area in the company and managed to turn it around. “My legal training was so important in terms of critical thinking and analyzing.”

Sherman points out that when a lawyer takes on a new case, she has to learn a whole new subject matter and new topic. “In general, lawyers are intellectually curious, and they absorb a lot of knowledge. In any area of law, you need a basic understanding of balance sheets and financial management.”

Sherman says that women need to make their desires known if, like her, they decide they want to move into operations. “I think it’s important to seek out different opportunities. It doesn’t have to be specifically about ‘moving out of law’—there are plenty of opportunities and projects that would allow a lawyer to test waters and explore. But you have to ask.”

Running a Nonprofit Like a Business

Beginning in her high school years, Coralie Chun Matayoshi knew she wanted to be a lawyer. “I had my whole life planned out: I was going to law school; then I’d go to work in a law firm and eventually become a partner.” From there, she would go on to become a Supreme Court justice or maybe attorney general.

Today, Matayoshi is chief executive officer of the American Red Cross’s Hawaii State Chapter and Pacific Island Region, a job she took after running the Hawaii State Bar Association for 13 years. While Matayoshi began her career in a traditional manner, working as an antitrust attorney in Washington, D.C., and then in private practice in Hawaii, she quickly found her other skills led to more suitable jobs.

“My baby was two months old when I started private practice, and it was really hard,” she recalls. When she found she was pregnant with her second child, she struggled with her company’s rigid maternity leave policy. She left the firm, taking a job in the legislature. “I had a background in political science, and I really wanted to use those skills.” She was active in the Hawaii State Bar Association and eventually became president of its young lawyers division (YLD).

During her time in the YLD, a colleague put her name forward for the executive director of the Hawaii Institute of Continuing Legal Education. In just two years, she took a struggling organization deep in debt and brought it to fiscal health. In 1990, she became executive director of the Hawaii State Bar Association. During her 13 years there, she built the organization from the ground up, growing it from three employees to 15, and leaving it with $1 million in reserves.

Matayoshi wasn’t looking for another job when the Red Cross offer came to her, but the challenge of turning around another struggling organization was intriguing. “I started with an empty desk and a $200,000 budget deficit,” she says. Her first year ended with a surplus almost twice that and a capital campaign to raise $5 million for facility renovations.

Even though she didn’t follow the trajectory she thought she would, Matayoshi says her legal background “helped tremendously. CEOs are problem solvers, and in law school, you’re taught to think of every angle. I use my legal skills every day, from writing contracts to speaking publicly, which I had to do as a trial lawyer. I think law prepares you for anything you do as head of an organization.”

So how does one start out in one career and end in another? “Take every opportunity to learn new skills, even though you don’t think you will ever use them again,” Matayoshi says, “because you never know when opportunity will knock and where life will take you.”

Hannah Hayes

Hannah Hayes is a Chicago-area freelance writer.