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Corporate Counsel Connect collection

November 2013 Edition

Transforming legal education for corporate counsel of the future: An interview with Ron Naves of the UC-Irvine Center for Corporate Legal Leadership

Karen Deuschle, Corporate Counsel Connect Editorial

Ron NavesNo one can say the role of corporate counsel is easy. Those most successful at it are not "just" lawyers – no small challenge itself – they are problems-solvers, strategists, business partners and leaders. However, the current legal educational system and law firm training grounds leave few lawyers prepared to fit all these roles. This is where the UC Irvine Law School's new Center for Corporate Legal Leadership (CCLL) and its newly appointed Executive Director Ron Naves come in.

Dedicated to in-house counsel

According to Ron, the mission for the CCLL is to be the "leading global provider of top-quality, real-world development opportunities for in-house counsel." Under the guidance of Founding Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Vice Dean Charles Cannon, UC-Irvine's law school has already earned praise as a leader in legal education. "The Deans' willingness to address the need for meaningful skills development for corporate attorneys speaks volumes about UCI Law's commitment to prepare attorneys to succeed," remarks Ron.

The curriculum is currently being developed with input from multiple sources, including law school faculty and an advisory committee of experienced corporate counsel, outside attorneys and business executives. Shares Ron, "By working with a broad constituency of professionals who deliver and rely on corporate legal services, we will build a curriculum that is tailored to meet the needs of global businesses." Courses will focus on leadership, business strategy, and cutting-edge legal issues as they apply to corporate counsel. Instructors will include "expert faculty and/or practitioners and will also tap the expertise students within the program by encouraging interactive discussions and group problem solving projects," says Ron. Classes are expected to start in the fall of 2014, and Ron anticipates 20-30 students in its inaugural semester.

A different kind of program

While the CCLL is certainly a unique and needed resource in the industry, UC-Irvine is not alone in developing this type of program. Harvard, Georgetown, and Northwestern all provide varying levels of education for corporate counsel. However, Ron and UC-Irvine look to expand on those offerings.

"Existing corporate counsel programs do not provide the depth of instruction that I envision," explains Ron. "Our courses will be more than moderator-and-panelist formats, and will focus on actually developing the skills needed to excel as an in-house lawyer rather than current developments or best practices." Courses will be "academically rigorous and custom tailored for corporate counsel, providing a more in-depth treatment of relevant topics," according to Ron, with some courses focusing primarily on non-legal, practical skills. The program is being designed to be flexible, allowing students to choose classes that interest them a la carte, or work toward certificates of achievement. "In the future," says Ron, "the CCLL may offer an advanced degree program leading to an LLM."

The CCLL program is also looking to develop internationally, with relationships already in place with the UCI Law School's Long Institute for U.S.-China Business and Law and the Korea Law Center. While there are naturally differences in the laws, legal systems and cultures among nations, in-house counsel within the global business environment face many similar challenges. States Ron, "In this way we will be able to customize programs to the specific needs of attorneys who represent U.S. companies doing business in Asia and Asian companies doing business in the U.S."

Practical advice for corporate counsel

The ideal students for the new CCLL program are "practicing in-house attorneys and outside counsel who either work with businesses or who wish to pursue in-house career opportunities." Of course not everyone in this type of role will have the opportunity to benefit from UC-Irvine's new program. However, Ron has some helpful advice for all in-house counsel.

"Most mistakes made by attorneys who are new to in-house practice stem from the failure to manage legal risk from a business-oriented perspective," says Ron. "Attorneys must develop the ability to think like a business person and be able to add value through counseling, strategizing and problem solving with their business clients. In addition to legal expertise, this requires excellent communication skills, an understanding of the language of business, an appreciation for the organization's appetite for risk, and an understanding of the company's business model."

Ron also feels that new corporate attorneys also struggle with managing client expectations. Effective project management and communication are a must. "Managing a burgeoning legal workload with shifting priorities from varied clients is challenging," says Ron. "An attorney must counsel with the client to understand the business goal and the deadlines involved with the project. Maintaining proper communication with the client about the status of projects and learning to obtain the appropriate resources to meet the client deadlines is critical."

An ideal leader

Ron comes from a varied background that suits him for this challenge. His legal career began in government as a Deputy City Attorney and then as an Assistant Attorney General where he became an experienced trial lawyer, familiar with local and state regulatory issues. He spent some time at a large law firm, representing corporations in complex litigation and regulatory matters. This led him to accept an in-house position with one of his clients, Gateway (the computer company with the cow-spotted boxes) in 1997. From there he held several in-house legal leadership positions, including the chief legal officer role, before creating his own firm 2 years ago. Along the way he completed his MBA from UCLA's Anderson School of Management.

How does one make the decision to leap from this to becoming the leader of a corporate counsel program designed to transform legal education? Ron says the opportunity was "simply too compelling to pass up. The opportunity to build a signature program within a new law school, with the support of innovative and accomplished faculty, was truly an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Ron's passion for this program was also driven by his experience, and he knows first-hand the need for this type of program in the industry. "I had the opportunity to build and restructure legal divisions at three publicly traded companies with diverse global businesses. This experience led me to conclude that there is a significant need for a post-JD law school program that will provide opportunities for corporate attorneys to develop critical skills and to prepare attorneys to successfully transition from private practice to in-house roles," states Ron.

Ron's business administration education also fuels his passion for the program. His MBA helped him "develop additional tools and frameworks for collecting, analyzing and reporting corporate legal data. With this information, I was better able to manage my in-house legal divisions, outside counsel and my clients' needs. At each company where I applied these principles, we were able to improve the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of the company's legal services," shares Ron. Through the CCLL, he can help others provide the same practical support and leadership to their organization.

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