In this installment of The In-House Advisor, we interview Bill Gabovitch, General Counsel at Primark U.S. Corp. Primark is a fast-fashion retailer, based in Europe, with 350 stores in 10 countries. The company’s first U.S. store opened three years ago – in the former Filene’s space at Downtown Crossing, Boston – and it now operates nine stores in five Northeast states. Bill is a former associate general counsel at Staples, a former associate at two Boston law firms, and a graduate of Indiana University and the University of Pennsylvania School Of Law. He lives in Newton, MA, with his wife Lauren and their daughters Rebecca and Naomi.
The In-House Advisor: What do you see as the main focus of your role as in-house counsel, and how do you see that role evolving over the next few years?
Bill Gabovitch: Overall, the value that an in-house counsel brings to the table is in how much he or she helps the business achieve its objectives with the lowest reasonable risk. Sometimes that involves helping on a transaction or a strategy, or choosing the right way to deliver the company’s products or services to the market, after properly assessing for risk. I think the harder part is looking long term and seeing what decisions you can or need to make today to protect the brand that might not be popular with the business folks – like paying to settle cases or avoiding high-risk situations that have the potential to drive revenue, but also could backfire and result in bad publicity. For the future, the overall goals of risk mitigation and brand image protection will continue. The change will be with the means of communication – most clearly, social media. In other words, the places and platforms where you see your brand, your employees, and your competitors are expanding and speeding up. In-house counsel need to understand – and I believe, participate in – these areas enough to fully understand how they are used and how they can affect their companies.
IHA: While in-house counsel routinely save their companies money, Legal Departments generally are viewed as cost centers that add nothing to the bottom line. How can in-house counsel get across to the business people the value that in-house lawyers add to the company?
BG: Great question. I think it starts with how you describe your job to other people. We all have a tendency to focus on the tasks that we do on a day-to-day basis, and say something like: “I negotiate and draft contracts, manage litigation, and oversee other legal matters.” Describing your role in the context of the company’s overarching goals and objectives, however, can create a completely different impression and really highlight your value. So, when I get asked about what I do as General Counsel of Primark, I like to say: “I advise on strategy to maximize profit and brand image for the company.”
IHA: What should in-house attorneys not say or do to try to show their value?
BG: Don’t apologize for the time you spend doing legal review of agreements or settling disputes – these functions not only are required of you, but your input is critical to making the company run more smoothly.
IHA: You have been in-house for over 20 years. How have you been able to thrive in that role, and what advice do you have for other in-house counsel so that they, too, can succeed?
BG: I call myself an in-house evangelist, because for my personality and the roles I have had, I have loved being in-house. It has been, for me, the best way to practice law. To be successful, I think you need to be flexible to serve the business’s needs. You need to be all-in for what the business is trying to achieve. You need to be a dedicated, real team member. One other thing that a colleague advised me is that we need to fully recognize that clients may come to us not knowing how to negotiate or draft a contract, or how to interpret a regulation. We know that – but we don’t know how to do their job. We must never be arrogant or above anyone else. We know our stuff and they know their stuff.