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Ama Romaine
General Counsel,
Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory,
Baltimore, Maryland

Pairing the power of people
and new perspectives

Diversity and flexibility are two hallmarks of Ama's career – and her professional experience is a testament to that. Born in Canada, she grew up in sunny Trinidad before returning to the Great White North for college, eventually settling in the United States. Allured by the legal profession from a young age, she credits the hijinks of Nancy Drew and the TV show "Paper Chase" with sparking her interest in the law. In college, after observing courtroom proceedings, she landed her first summer internship working at the law firm of a solo practitioner. After comparing that experience with her summer associate experience at a law firm with offices around the globe, Ama refined what she wanted to do after graduating from law school: work on international commercial transactions with people who had diverse experiences. That goal fueled a unique career trajectory, eventually leading her to serve as General Counsel for John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Here in her own words is Ama's story – and a fearless moment that helped define it.

Challenge

I saw my challenge as something I was increasingly drawn to as my career progressed: being a disrupter. How could I expand beyond the hospitality industry to learn how science and technology spur game-changing innovations across industries – and effect positive change?

When I graduated from law school, I joined the energy and project finance group at White & Case. I returned to Trinidad for a brief stint where I served as local counsel to US & UK financial institutions investing in large infrastructure projects, primarily for the liquefied natural gas industry.

Shortly after returning to the U.S., I joined the legal department at Choice Hotels, where I was responsible for negotiating all the company's commercial contracts. Although my responsibilities did not have an international component, I was excited about landing my first in-house role.

Discovering business partnering

During my tenure at Choice Hotels, I worked for a General Counsel who immensely shaped my perspective on in-house practice. I was intrigued by his career path and discovered that one of the secrets to his success was effective business partnering. He sought to connect with his colleagues, nurture relationships and learn the business intimately. I quickly learned that in-house lawyers are most successful when they are able to build effective internal relationships because when lawyers are trusted by their business partners and integrated into the organization, they develop a deeper understanding of business drivers and risk tolerances, which results in more strategic and effective legal counsel. This caused quite the paradigm shift as I took the next steps in my career.

...when lawyers are trusted by their business partners and integrated into the organization, they develop a deeper understanding of business drivers and risk tolerances, which results in more strategic and effective legal counsel.

Unlocking the value of relationships

A couple years later, I joined the Hilton legal department where I provided legal advice on a broad range of commercial and regulatory issues that impacted the company's global marketing organization. In this role, I was in frequent contact with my colleagues in each geographic region where the hotel chain had a presence. I enjoyed working with colleagues around the globe and was energized by the breadth of my responsibilities. In landing this position later in my career, I took every opportunity to really learn the business of hospitality and focused on establishing trust with my business partners. My efforts to connect with my colleagues and learn the business ultimately drove my success and precipitated my advancement within the organization.

As I gained a deeper understanding of the ways in which the hospitality industry was evolving, I became intrigued by disruptors, including the rise of game-changers such as Amazon, Airbnb® and Netflix® that challenged traditional market landscapes. This prompted me to set my sights on something new – wondering if I could spread my wings and shake up my career like these disruptors that had so captivated my attention.

Outcome

This desire to understand how others innovate led me to my current position with the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). APL sparked my interest because the Lab was focused on using its science and engineering expertise to spur impactful innovative technologies that make our nation safer. I also believed that my background and experience as a commercial attorney would add value to the Lab by offering a unique perspective that could ultimately help the Lab to increase its impact. While my experience in hospitality may not appear to be relevant in a science and technology, non-profit organization, I believe APL gave me this opportunity because research has shown that organizations benefit and are more innovative when they bring people with diverse perspectives and experiences together.

Here at APL, I have been able to use my experience as a commercial lawyer from the hospitality industry to transform the way the legal department interacts with the rest of the organization. I did this by creating a forward-deployed legal team that is aligned with the business units instead of focused only on our individual subject-matter expertise. In addition, we take purposeful steps to move away from being a team that takes and executes orders, instead seeking to share our diverse perspectives that illuminate options for our business partners. For example, every other month, we bring leaders from around the Lab to share their goals and personal stories with the legal team.

A payoff from taking risks

My willingness to transition to a completely different industry has taken my career in a fresh, new direction. It has opened my eyes to the need for lawyers to embrace disruption and look for opportunities to be innovative in the way we provide legal services. Within my first year, my commercial expertise helped pave the way for a sponsored research agreement with Facebook® that would further our research efforts involving a modular control system to control prosthetic limbs through brain signals. We are also re-evaluating our IP portfolio and looking for new ways to help the Lab strategically use its IP.

Within my first year, my commercial expertise helped pave the way for a sponsored research agreement with Facebook that would further our research efforts involving a modular control system to control prosthetic limbs through brain signals.

Offering a fresh approach

My emphasis on fostering diverse thought, collaboration and relationship building continues to drive my career. In my current role, I am continually looking for ways to infuse my perspective into the organization, but my big challenge is making sure that people understand that lawyers do not and should not focus on providing only legal advice. We must continually look at the big picture and find ways to influence positive business outcomes even if a proposed path is legally permissible. I encourage my team to bring their prior experiences to their engagements, questioning the status quo where appropriate and suggesting alternatives. Not every idea or recommendation will be accepted, but sharing our insights is essential to the Lab's success.

Fearless moment

Applied Physics Lab is an organization that has really helped me to get a fresh perspective on the role that science and technology plays in the disruptive process. Since joining APL, I have had the opportunity to bring a similar type of disruptive momentum to my career journey. In fact, I am reminded of the adage that no growth comes without discomfort. This is as true for organizations as it has been for my career. For in-house counsel, no matter where you work, there's always an opportunity to think creatively about your role to ensure that you continuously add value to your organization. We can do this by challenging traditional billing models and thinking of new ways to provide legal services by incorporating technology into the way we work. Legal teams can and should be fearless, embrace being the different voice in an organization, look for opportunities to share our perspective and identify ways to provide legal services more creatively.

Since joining APL, I have had the opportunity to bring a similar type of disruptive momentum to my career journey. In fact, I am reminded of the adage that no growth comes without discomfort. This is as true for organizations as it has been for my career.

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