In-house legal leaders do best when they put their legal skills to work in support of their role as a business strategist, says Krista Russell, deputy general counsel at Airbus OneWeb Satellites.
The typical in-house career path starts with a stint or two in private practice but that’s changing because what company executives really want is a business partner who brings subject matter expertise in the law, Russell said in a webcast with LinkSquares Chief Legal Officer Tim Parilla.
“I actually think my business brain at this point is definitely better than my legal brain, but they work cohesively well together,” said Russell, who joined the Airbus-OneWeb joint venture in 2020 after working on supply chain contracts for FedEx Logistics. “To practice at the top of your license in-house, you have to develop your business acumen and not just as a buzzword on your resume.”
The Airbus-OneWeb joint venture builds low-orbit commercial satellites.
Russell’s first two jobs out of law school were business roles that she expanded to include transactional legal work. In one of those roles, she spent weeks in China meeting with suppliers and learning supply chain issues from the ground up, experience that helped her in her role as a supply chain contracting specialist with FedEx.
“I was in a business affairs kind of role that had a legal component and that gave me the opportunity to understand what the business of supply chain looks like, everything from quality assurance at the end of the process to shipping, customs and freight forwarding,” she said.
A business-first mindset is critical at Airbus, because the legal issues the company is dealing with in significant ways boil down to getting the business issues right.
“When you draft a commercial deal well – the scope of work and services and how pricing works and what happens when one party doesn’t do one thing – often you don’t even have to get to the other legal terms,” she said. “You’re not spending your time negotiating the words on a limitation of liability clause, not usually. Most of the time you’re writing out all of the ways a limitation of liability clause might come into effect, beyond the very small box of breach of contract.”
Part of her work at Airbus intersects with the company’s broader interest in working with other companies in the satellite industry to ensure the private use of space remains safe and open to everybody even as more technology gets put into orbit.
“As big and open as space is, by definition, you can’t have a million things flying up in the sky without standards for orbiting and deorbiting,” she said.
Russell said she was never interested in joining private law practice, so for her, being a business-minded lawyer has always been part of her approach, and she shares that mindset with her students at University of Miami School of Law, where she teaches contract law classes as an adjunct lecturer.
“Because I knew I was pursuing a more narrow path in an in-house career, I had to work my tail off in a different way but also be willing to step outside the normal definition of what you're supposed to do,” she said. “You need to learn how to read the quarterly earnings statements, understand the earnings calls, know what cash and the cost of money means and understand your own business’s financial struggles.”
In short, she said, if you claim you have business acumen – what distinguishes in-house counsel from outside lawyers – you need to put substance behind the claim.
“That’s what I try to teach in my classes and empower my team,” she said, “so people want us in their sales meetings and want to bring legal along as their business partner and not as a check-the-box process they have to go through before a deal gets done.”