JD Profiles: Richard Russeth, Vice President + General Counsel, Leprino Foods Company

In this new series, we are profiling legal professionals and J.D.s and asking them the hard questions that don’t always get answered in law school. For example, how did they find their job? What do they do on a day-to-day basis? And, was law school a worthwhile investment?

Richard Russeth has worked in-house at various multi-national companies in the food industry since his graduation from the University of Minnesota Law School in 1982. In his roles as Assistant General Counsel and General Counsel, his clients may ask him questions relating to employment, intellectual property, or international tax law on any given day. Rather than focusing on one area of the law, Richard has become a rare entity – a self-proclaimed generalist. The Last Generalist talks with us once again about his career path, networking philosophies, technology, and the implications of the Food Safety Modernization Act for FDA lawyers.

RecruiterEsq: Thank you for speaking to us today!

Richard Russeth:  Glad to have the opportunity!

We had spoken earlier over #LawJobChat about your career path. I’d like to follow-up here with a few more questions because you provided such valuable information. During #LawJobChat, you talked about how a GC at Pillsbury took a chance on you when you applied to intern there. Can you tell us more about how you went about applying for the position? What your interview process was like? And, how you demonstrated your abilities from the get-go?

It was so long ago that I got that law clerk job!

The “in” was actually through the Deputy General Counsel, Ronald Lund (who went on to be General Counsel of Medtronic) who I knew through family connections – family is your number one network opportunity, then friends, then business colleagues and then everything else from LinkedIn to Twitter and beyond.

While my network got me in the clerkship door, it was Ed Stringer, the GC (later appointed to MN Supreme Ct) who took the chance three years later to hire me full-time. In hindsight, I think the reason was that I always was looking for solutions, not just giving “legal advice.” It’s easy to write sterile legal advice – it’s far more effective to give practical, useable solutions to your clients. Saying “that looks risky” is easy – saying there are risks but here’s a pretty good map through the minefield, well, that’s a winner with any client.

What are some hot legal issues facing food industries?

Primarily, food safety. The Senate just passed a final version of the Food Safety Modernization Act (passed by the House this past summer) that is the biggest overhaul of our nation’s food safety laws since before WWII; working through the implications for our clients should keep us FDA focused lawyers very busy!

Hear that, Folks? Food safety/FDA law may be an area to check out! You’ve had to deal with corporate restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and organizational changes. For example, you moved from The Pillsbury Company to Haagen-Daaz, one of Pillsbury’s wholly-owned subsidiaries. Later, you worked as VP & General Counsel for Cutlor Foods, which was then acquired by Danisco so you moved over to a new position there. Is this a usual trend in the in-house industry?

Businesses are in a constant cycle of mergers and acquisitions, and this has a significant impact on the in-house legal functions; this cycle has only accelerated in the course of my career. There can only be one GC in any organization so consolidation leaves someone one out of a job. The trick is to be ready to deal with that. You can’t ever have your head in the sand. Constantly acquiring new knowledge, new or upgraded skills, and new experience is essential. General Counsels may have a specialty or focus in their practice, but the word “General” really means something in my view. After all you are managing all of the corporations legal issues, not just those with which you may have the most experience. Keep reinventing yourself!

How did you decide to move from Haagen-Daaz to Cultor Food Science? Were you recruited or how did you find the position?

I wish I could say, “recruited” – it sounds so much better! But a few years after Pillsbury was acquired by what is now known as Diageo, the decision was made to relocate the Haagen-Dazs business from NJ to the HQ in Minneapolis, MN. I had been with Pillsbury/Diageo for almost 14 years at that point and I didn’t see a clear career path inside Diageo any longer – so I opted to “pursue other options.” My network steered me into the Cultor Foods job – networks did exist before LinkedIn, believe it or not. It’s just so easy to maintain and grow a network now that no one has any excuse.

Great point. Is there a difference between an assistant general counsel role and a GC?

The GC needs to make the “big calls” on a wide variety to issues – some she knows a lot about, some she knows little about. This is why a diverse background in the law is essential in my view – assistant GCs tend to be more specialized – at least in large legal departments. In a large legal department, the differences are quite large in terms of strategic goal setting, delegation and overall access to and support of senior management. But in the departments that I’ve headed up from five to fifteen people, the difference is pretty much academic, although the buck clearly does stop at my desk – as it should!

During the same #LawJobChat, you also mentioned taking advantage of Twitter and LinkedIn. How do you use both of those sites? What would be your response if a lawyer asked you, “Why would I use Twitter? What do I do on LinkedIn?”

I am participating in this interview because you and I got to know each other through #lawjobchat on Twitter!! I have met so many great lawyers and other professionals on Twitter and then networked in person at the ACC Annual Meeting and other events. As for LinkedIn, it is simply a way to keep your profile in public in a way that you never, ever could before. Is LinkedIn going to land a job for you all by itself – of course not, but its part of building and tracking your network in real time; all without taking up as much time as that task used to entail. And recruiters are combing it every day. LinkedIn is as essential as an email account.

In the past, attorneys working at law firms only had to think about corporate restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and organizational changes in terms of their clients. Now, we see more and more law firms merging or changing their organizational structure. What advice do you have for lawyers given your own experience?

Build your network now – that’s where your next job is coming from. Keep it fresh. Stay in touch. Most of all: Help others in their job search just as you’d want to be helped should it be necessary. Yes, the Golden Networking Rule!  When someone you “sort of know” asks for help, do you respond or do you “archive”? Are you on LinkedIn? Facebook? Twitter?  Do you “stay in touch” often enough?  Are you tracking job listings? Are you attending local ABA or ACC meetings? Are you writing for publication?

Your blog is called The Last Generalist. It’s a great read that I’d recommend for all of our readers to visit. What do you mean by “The Last Generalist?”

It’s a little bit of a joke to be honest.  I go to bar or ACC functions and everyone is talking about their specialty and gathered in their specialist huddles and I’m sometimes on the outside looking in more often than I’d care to admit.  My huddle often seems pretty darn small – me and my cup of coffee…

As an entrepreneur who handles everything herself, I know there are real benefits to being a generalist.  In your opinion, what are the benefits to being a generalist rather than a specialist? How do you maintain your credentials as a generalist?

I think the benefits depend on the type of person you are. I enjoy variety and being a jack-of-all-trades. Not everyone does. I think in private practice, being a generalist is all but impossible inside a firm of any scale. But as a General Counsel, I think those generalist instincts are key to being able to manage a wide variety of legal issues and lawyers across the US and the globe. And maybe seeing the forest where your specialist can only see the trees. As for credentials, well, I think it involves reading a wide variety of periodicals and branching out in CLE courses. But most important is getting a wide exposure to different fields of law as you grow in your career. I probably had a different “specialty” every 12 months for the first 14 years of my career!

How did you decide to start a blog? Was this something recommended by your company?

The blog was a natural as I have always loved to write – I enjoy the creative outlet it provides. Also, I just felt like there was a story that wasn’t getting told much any more in the very tough business that the law has become – that being good at what you do is important but not at the cost of selling your soul or not having a life outside the law. In my view, courtesy, ethics and professionalism matter. The Last Generalist lets me speak to these things. My company tolerates my blog! I am very careful never to discuss my company or any legal matters or topics related to anything I’m handling – it’s my personal blog and I’m very careful to keep it that way.

How do you work it into your daily schedule?

I have to say I am not terribly disciplined in this respect but the flip side is that it doesn’t take that much time to keep the ball moving. I probably spend 30 to 45 minutes between getting up and bedtime on these activities. First thing in the AM is a great way to kick the day off – talking to the world with a cup of coffee. When I was at a recent PLI seminar I tweeted it live – and got feedback from lawyers in the UK when I posted something on UK law – it’s such a great tool!

What technology do you use on a day-to-day basis? E.g., phone apps, Skype, SaaS, any blogging tools

I’m a huge fan of Hootsuite. I can track numerous Twitter streams, LinkedIn and Facebook accounts all from one great platform. Can’t say enough good things about it.  That plus my Droid gets me through the day.

In your position, are you in charge of hiring attorneys? If so, what are some of your favorite interview questions?

Well, I wish I could hire more! Seriously, for me, once we establish your credentials then it’s really about working together. I spend more time with my co-lawyers than anyone else in my life so I really, really want to be sure they are smart, funny and easy to work with! Oddly enough, if they are open and honest about failure, they tend to be the best people with whom to work. My favorite interview question is one that I picked up in the course of my various job searches: “Why do you think you lost the first lawsuit that you ever lost?”

I loved being asked and asking that question. Failure and how we learn and recover from it is so much more interesting than success. It’s our failures that shape us. If someone can talk about failure honestly and how they picked themselves up – that is way more interesting to me that the win. They tend to be more interesting people too!

I like that one.  I may add it to my repertoire. Again, it was a pleasure speaking with you! Thank you very much again for your time!

Thank you!

Richard Russeth is Vice President and General Counsel at Leprino Foods. You can read his blog or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.