November 05, 2016 Articles

Q&A with In-House Counsel John Son of Union Supply Group

With the private law firm life in his rearview, a new general counsel shares his insights as a corporate counsel.

By Amanda Villalobos

John Son is vice president of business affairs and general counsel at Union Supply Group, Inc., which is a leading provider of goods and services to state and federal correctional facilities nationwide. Previously, Mr. Son was a litigation attorney at Tucker Ellis LLP, where he focused his practice on products liability and mass tort defense. While at Tucker Ellis, Mr. Son served as national and local trial counsel for clients in a variety of industries, including aviation; vertical transportation; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; aerospace; and shipbuilding.

Mr. Son recently shared his views on the following questions:

What was the most difficult part of your transition from outside counsel to in-house counsel?
One challenging aspect of my new role, and also one of the most gratifying, is going from a specialist in a single area of law to a “generalist” and having to continually educate myself in new practice areas in a short amount of time. Prior to going in-house, I was a litigator specializing in products liability defense. Now, on any given day, I am asked to address challenges in a number of different legal areas such as corporate law, employment law, intellectual property, and contracts law (to name just a few). I also help the company solve random and challenging issues that, while not legal in nature, implicate important company interests and have the potential to affect the success and reputation of the company. The role of in-house counsel goes beyond the boundaries of the legal department, and you have to think about a variety of factors beyond just the law when deciding on a particular course of action the company should take.

Why do you think you’ve been successful in your new role?
I have held this position for less than a year, so I hesitate to say that I’ve achieved “success” at this point. But a big part of my role in the company is risk management. I help the business grow and manage its day-to-operations while trying to minimize potential liability, and having a litigation background has been invaluable in that respect. But to really succeed in my new role as general counsel and become a trusted advisor to the company, I also need to understand all aspects of the company’s business operations. That means building close relationships with every business unit and learning what their priorities are and what challenges they face. The key to accomplishing this is trust. All of the things that have earned me the trust of my colleagues throughout my career—such as a having a strong work ethic, being a good listener, being analytical, being resourceful, and just exhibiting good judgment—will be the key to my success here as well.

What benefits do you find companies like yours gain from having diversity in the workplace?
Union Supply Group is a leading provider of goods and services to the correctional industry, and I believe a large part of our company’s success is its diverse workforce. Diversity in the workplace benefits the company in multiple ways. First, employees from diverse backgrounds bring individual talents and experiences that I believe lead to better problem solving. From a retailer standpoint, having a diverse workforce provides us with a more diverse network of potential business partners to tap into, from suppliers to manufacturers. A diverse workforce with varying perspectives, backgrounds, and life experiences also gives a company a competitive advantage when it comes to understanding and anticipating customer demands and trends. Second, diversity in the workplace creates a more positive work environment, and employee satisfaction leads to increased productivity and reduces employee turnover. I personally enjoy coming to work every day and interacting with people from diverse backgrounds, with diverse ways of thinking. People, including myself, want to be in an environment where they work with people they can relate to on many different levels, as well as people they can learn from.

What advice would you give to an attorney who’s considering making the jump to in-house legal work?
The demands and responsibilities of an in-house position will vary greatly depending on the company and the organization of the legal department, so there isn’t one clear path to going in-house. Having a broad skill set in many different legal areas, and learning to be resourceful, will definitely prepare you well for an in-house position. Beyond that, I think developing a good reputation in the legal community and maintaining relationships are important for getting access to in-house opportunities. There is a tremendous amount of competition for in-house positions, and in my experience, having connections or a good recommendation can go a long way toward separating you from the crowd. So my advice is to always conduct yourself as the type of attorney, and person, that you would not hesitate to recommend for an important position. Treat everyone—whether it be a colleague, a client, opposing counsel, or judge—as if they might be in a position to offer you or recommend you for an in-house position down the road.

What advice would you give to firms trying to win your company’s business?
It’s pretty simple for me: Provide excellent client service. Be accessible and respond to phone calls or emails in a timely fashion, listen, follow through on promises, work efficiently, and bill with clarity, accuracy, and based on value. Handle my smaller matters with the same level of care and attention that you would my larger matters. Don’t agree to an alternative fee arrangement and then skimp on the quality of your legal services. I worked at a law firm that emphasized client service and the importance of cultivating long-term relationships, even at the expense of billing, so I thought all of these things were par for the course, but I am learning that this isn’t true for all law firms.

Is there anything you miss from your time working at a firm?
Being the only attorney in the company, I miss having a peer group with whom I can discuss ideas and talk through challenging legal issues. And while I sometimes miss the more fast-paced lifestyle of working at a litigation firm, I couldn’t be happier in my new role, which was an opportunity that came to me at just the right time in my professional and personal life.

Keywords: litigation, diversity, inclusion, Union Supply Group, Inc., John Son, corporate counsel, advice for lawyers

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