Deirdre Stanley – Making the Most of Change
“Today’s diverse attorneys understand that doing good legal work is the price of admission,” confides Deirdre Stanley. “But engaging with the business and building relationships can really propel a career forward.”
As executive vice president and general counsel for Thomson Reuters, the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals, Stanley certainly knows of what she speaks. “Once in, my suggestion is to seek out interesting and challenging work,” she recommends. “At Thomson Reuters, neither is in short supply.”
Based in the company’s New York City headquarters, Stanley leads the day-to-day operations of Thomson Reuters’ global legal department. She is also a member of the Thomson Reuters executive committee. “Much of my job involves weighing in on the big legal judgment calls,” explains Stanley, “and fostering an environment and expectation that ensures our lawyers are being proactive and practicing in a way that is most effective for the company.”
Stanley joined The Thomson Corporation (a Canadian publisher and provider of information services) as general counsel in 2002. “Joining Thomson was very exciting for me for two reasons,” she shares. “First, I had an opportunity to join the business during a transitional period, which afforded me the chance to redefine the value of the legal department and reorganize its structure. Second, the job came with free Westlaw service —that’s a Thomson Reuters business, as are a number of the other products and services our profession uses every day.”
Thomson acquired Reuters (a prominent United Kingdom-based news service and financial information provider) in 2008. The publicly traded company that emerged combined a globally respected news organization with industry expertise in delivering critical information to leading decision-makers in the financial, legal, tax and accounting, scientific, healthcare, and media markets.
For Stanley, the change was like getting a new job. “Suddenly we became a global entity, with a CEO from Reuters and a blended management team,” she recalls. “Of course, there were some challenges, but we had a very good integration and it was a great experience in change management.” And there was the scale issue—Stanley’s legal team now includes more than eighty lawyers in ten countries.
Stanley describes growing up in a family and a community where education was both stressed and abundant. Her hometown of Huntsville, Ala., boasts a very large NASA facility and two historically black colleges, Alabama A&M University and Oakwood College. In her view, “as a young person coming of age in Huntsville, I saw a significant number of educated African Americans working in professional jobs. Particularly for minorities, it was firsthand evidence that education pays.”
From her mother, a now-retired associate professor of English, Stanley learned the importance of written and oral expression; her father, the owner of a construction company, gave her an understanding of business. “It was mostly through osmosis, I guess,” she explains, “but the tools I picked up from being exposed to the family business have shaped the way I look at things as a general counsel. I know how important it is to look at things in a way that moves the business forward.”
As an undergraduate at Duke University, Stanley initially majored in math before switching to public policy studies (with three engineer siblings, she was a tad hesitant to venture into the social sciences). After graduating, Stanley went on to Harvard Law School, where she was on Law Review. “My law school experience was a good one,” she reminiscences. “Other than anticipating hard work, I had very few expectations, and I think that precluded any frustrations.”
Her first job out of law school was in Cravath, Swaine & Moore’s New York City office as a corporate associate. “The experience was critical in terms of training,” shares Stanley. “I worked with small groups of partners in different practice areas for anywhere from eighteen to twenty-four months. Today, being a general counsel, I sometimes have corporate issues that may be novel to me, but having gone through that process at the firm—where I was exposed to a breadth of corporate legal issues— affords me a comfort level. Those years were foundational for me.”
The transition from firm to corporate practice went smoothly for Stanley. Her introduction to in-house was as associate general counsel for GTE Corporation, where she headed the mergers and acquisitions practice group. The position emphasized work with which Stanley was very familiar from her last years at the firm, providing a comfortable setting in which she could continue in her practice area while developing group decision-making skills.
Prior to joining the The Thomson Corporation in 2002, Stanley served as deputy general counsel at USA Networks, Inc. In that position, Stanley learned the importance of communication and prioritizing, as well as ways to convince the business side of a corporation that its legal function is integrally related to a company’s success. She also held other seniorexecutive roles within the company.
“My career isn’t the outcome of a deliberate path,” notes Stanley. “My moving in-house was the result of my interest in the strategic aspects of M&A—wanting to get in on the earlier stages of the deal, as opposed to execution-only. Once I was working in-house, I didn’t initially set my sights on general counsel. For a while, I thought I might possibly move to the business side of things, but I concentrated mainly on finding complex work—and, of course, made sure to build relationships along the way.”
Looking to the future, Stanley foresees an increase in the number of minorities and women in leadership positions of corporate legal departments; nevertheless, she is disturbed by a troubling trend: “I understand that in recent years, the number of law-school graduates of color has declined, and this bothers me. Let’s face it—a JD is a prerequisite for a law career, and without a sufficient pool of law-school grads of color who are admitted to the bar and gaining experience at firms, all the advocacy and interest in diversity in the world won’t alter the complexion of the profession. Once again, it comes down to improving public education and creating a professional pipeline that begins in high school at the latest. It’s imperative.”
Regarding her own prospects, Stanley is happy at Thomson Reuters. “We have a dynamic, global company that provides information to professionals who work in areas that are critical to societies and their progress—law, finance, healthcare, science, and tax. The legal issues that cross country boundaries, practice areas, and diverse customers are interesting and challenging. Our opportunity as a company is huge, and I’m proud to be here.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the March/April 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®