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Vermont In-House General Counsel A Risk-Taker

Michele S. Gatto has never been afraid to take risks.

Her willingness to move from place to place and tackle new and challenging positions has led her to Montpelier, Vt., where she is senior vice president and general counsel managing a seven-lawyer staff at National Life Insurance Co. She’s loving every minute of the experience, from the gorgeous countryside to challenging legal work. Hailing from New Castle, Pa., a gritty mill town north of Pittsburgh, Gatto obtained a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa. (hometown of famed movie actor Jimmy Stewart), and a master’s degree from Youngstown State University in Youngstown, Ohio. After moving to Massachusetts, she graduated from Western New England College School of Law in Springfield, Mass. and earned an M.B.A. from Clark University in Worcester, Mass. Her career has seen her work for 11 years in Worcester serving in a number of positions for The Paul Revere Corporation, then for two years playing an integral role in helping to turn around a financially troubled Boston-based insurance carrier, Massachusetts Casualty Insurance Co.

“Anyone who wants to make a change should be resilient so you can bounce back if it doesn’t work out and let yourself try again,” she suggests. “Earlier in my career, I had no way of knowing that I’d come to Vermont. I had the ability and willingness to be mobile. Fortunately, I had diverse work experience, which allowed me to get this opportunity.” Gatto recently chatted with Lawyers Weekly’s Paul Boynton about career changes and the evolving responsibilities of in-house counsel.

Q. What’s practicing law in Montpelier like? Is it as idyllic as it sounds?

A. It’s an absolutely beautiful place with picturesque landscape. The views on my drive to work are like picture postcards. The people in Vermont are so good to work with. National Life has a dedicated and very capable work force. National Life is 153 years old; one of the oldest insurance companies in the U.S. Integrity has always been an essential corporate characteristic of the company. It’s gratifying to work with so many good people. The work we do in the law department is interesting and challenging. We have a great team of lawyers and staff. We have seven lawyers with expertise in tax, employee benefits, pensions, compliance and regulatory matters, contracts, corporate governance, intellectual property, real estate, employment law. People would be surprised to know we have that broad range of expertise here.

Q. Any tips for other in-house counsel in making the right kinds of career choices and contacts to find something similar to your position?

A. I would suggest that you not to be too risk averse, otherwise you won’t reach out for opportunities. Anyone who wants to make a change should be resilient so you can bounce back if it doesn’t work out and let yourself try again. I previously took a job as a vice-president and general counsel at a turnaround company in Boston. I mention that because I took some risk in going there because the company had not been profitable for ten years. But I was eager to work in a fast-paced environment and be part of a management team of a turnaround company. It was a great career move, providing me with lots of good experience and more responsibility — like strategic business planning. It was very exciting to put together a business plan to turn the company around. You have to take some calculated risks. Don’t take wild risks, but don’t prevent yourself from looking at opportunities.

Q. Have you had any mentors or role models in your career?

A. I’ve not had a single role model or mentor, but I’ve learned a great deal from many different people, and they probably didn’t know I was learning from them. I’ve observed different management and leadership styles and what works. I’ve learned the importance of relationship building skills and communication skills.

Q. What are your major concerns these days as in-house counsel?

A. I’ve seen the role of general counsel shift over the years. Traditionally, they’ve acted as legal advisers managing legal risks after the fact. It still involves that, but that’s only part of the job. The role is so much more expansive now. You need to understand the culture and business of the company. Otherwise, you do your work in a vacuum. You have to monitor the regulatory and legislative issues that impact your company. You need to anticipate, evaluate and mitigate risks before the fact. And equally as important, you must manage the law department efficiently and effectively, and motivate and manage your legal team.

Q. What are some of the hot legal issues your facing?

A. The insurance industry is a highly regulated industry. Our company is licensed in 50 states, and there are increasingly more federal regulations. We work hard to comply with all the regulations we face. Corporate governance and privacy are both prominent items in most corporate law departments.

Q. Despite the push for “demutualization” in the insurance industry over the past few years, your company has resisted going public. What’s the dynamic behind that decision?

A. Our structure seems to work for us.

Q. Has choosing outside litigators changed for you?

A. I have seen it change since the mid-’80s. In the past, in-house counsel usually farmed out cases. Outside counsel managed the case and sent in a bill. We look at outside counsel as extension of inside counsel. Our team plays a key role in managing cases by working on setting strategy and participating in all key litigation decisions. Costs are important. We have to weigh costs with strategy. We need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a case early on. Do we take it to trial or mediation? We look for a strategic approach to litigation and in-house counsel is poised to manage that and outside counsel. We look for counsel we can build a positive relationship with, who will work for us and with us. We want them to give us an honest assessment and meaningful guidance. They shouldn’t overstaff cases. And we look for competitive billing rates.

Q. What’s your role with the American Corporate Counsel Association?

A. Nationally, I serve on the executive committee of the Law Department Management Committee. I’m a member of the Northeast chapter. I’ve written for Docket, the association’s magazine. I recommend joining ACCA. It really does serve the professional needs of in-house counsel. The approach of ACCA is pretty practical, not overly theoretical.

Gatto Dossier

Age: 52

Residence: South Burlington, Vt.

Hobbies: “I’ve always been an avid reader. I enjoy traveling. I live on a golf course, and now I’m a beginning golfer. I think I might be a beginner for awhile!”

Currently reading: “I usually have a few books open at the same time. Right now I’m reading “Prey” by Michael Crichton, and “Primal Leadership,” which is about the power of emotional intelligence.

If I weren’t a lawyer I’d be: “Something international, maybe the foreign service.”

People would be surprised to know that: “I have a plot for a non-fiction bestseller in my head.”