Lawyer Limelight: Marla Persky

In case you were wondering what a 30-year law career culminating in a decade as General Counsel at a multinational pharmaceutical company prepares you for doing with the rest of your life, we thought we’d ask Marla Persky pretty much that exact question, among a few others. Yes, she’s doing a little gardening in her so-called retirement – but she always managed to find some time for that. But it turns out her illustrious legal career propelled her toward entrepreneurship. Persky has launched two companies since leaving Boehringer Ingelheim – perhaps one more than strictly necessary, she admits – but she’s having a great time helping prepare women lawyers for top management and running a boutique international travel company catering to serious foodies and culture hounds.

Lawdragon: You worked for years at Baxter International, rising to Acting General Counsel before taking the General Counsel position at Boehringer Ingelheim. At what point in your career did you decide you aspired to be General Counsel, and how did you assess your chances?

Marla Persky:  I never specifically set a goal to be General Counsel.  My career goals have always been activity based, not title based.  For instance, after many years as Associate General Counsel in charge of Baxter’s litigation, I decided that I wanted a more transactional and business-based job, so that is what I went after. I wanted more board experience and so became Assistant Corporate Secretary at Baxter.  I wanted P&L experience and became managing director of a business.

As it turns out, the fact that I had varied experiences – litigation, regulatory, M&A, securities, business … all turned out to lay a very strong foundation for being a GC.  It is critical that a GC be an issue spotter and problem solver – varied experienced in both law and business helped me hone those skills.

LD:  What were the advantages and disadvantages of coming into the top legal job at BI from outside the company?

MP:  The advantage of coming into the GC position from outside a company is that you start with a clean slate – you aren’t hampered by everything that has been done in the past.  You are a fresh set of eyes and can critically assess things.  Also, you are not mired in past political battles – you are the new kid and you are generally given leeway during a honeymoon period.  The downside is that you have to rely on others for the history and background of “why things are the way they are.”

Also, you need to quickly build alliances and gain trust.  To do this you can’t come in with “guns ablazing.”  You need to take time to understand the people, the culture and the issues facing the company.  Change for change’s sake will generally get you in trouble.  Change for the better, however, will be embraced and supported if you have established credibility and trust.  Also, when you come in as the boss you avoid the tangle of becoming the supervisor of friends and former peers.  Your closest friends and colleagues are not within the law department … they are the other members of senior management.

LD: You went to Washington University School of Law. How do you assess the quality of legal education in the U.S. today? What would, or do, you tell law students today about how to approach their careers?

MP:  The problem with legal education today at “top-tier schools” is the same as it was when I graduated over 30+ years ago … you learn the theory or “how to think like a lawyer” but not the practical skills needed to hit the ground running.  Nobody teaches you anything about the business of legal practice.  There are very few courses on how to delight clients, how to be THE GO TO associate, the difference between in-house and law firm practice, how to choose a legal specialty best suited to your personality.   The biggest difference today is that upon graduation there is no easy pathway to employment as a lawyer unless you are at the top of your class at one of the higher ranked schools (and don’t even get me started about the entire law school ranking controversy).  This changes how someone approaches law school  - you need to be much more attuned to using your three years of law school to differentiate yourself (and I don’t mean grades) and position yourself to be hired.  Grades, law review, moot court just isn’t enough for most of today’s graduates to have a job upon graduation.

LD: As General Counsel – what were the most important factors you looked at in selecting outside counsel for given cases or projects?

MP:  There are many good lawyers and law firms.  The lawyers I sought to work with were those who were business partners.  Lawyers who took the time to understand my company, my issues and my department.  People who recognized the need to align their incentives with the company’s incentives.  Giving good solid legal advice is expected; giving that advice in a business relevant fashion is a skill that many fine lawyers lack.

LD: You retired relatively young. Why?

MP:  One needs to continue to grow and seek new challenges.  After 30+ years of practicing law, the last 10 of which as a general counsel, I needed to step away and try something new.  I wanted to put all my business experience to work and expand my entrepreneurial inclinations.

LD: You have some new ventures in the works, one of which is WOMN LLC, a company that will mentor women lawyers and provide career guidance and expertise. Tell us about how that started and how it’s going so far.

MP: One aspect of WOMN LLC is dedicated to helping women succeed in the business of law.  We have a 12 month program designed to help senior female associates/non-equity partners better understand business drivers, improve their networking and “selling” skills so as to become successful business generators.  If you don’t have your own clients and your own book of business then you will not be a powerful influence within your firm.  WOMN LLC also consults with law firms on special projects related to talent management and development.

LD: Your other business, Epicurean Travel, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the law at all. In fact, it suggests to us that you had time to develop outside interests during your career. So you like to travel and you like good food – why did you decide to develop those interests as a business?

MP: Think of the greatest evenings you have had.  I bet those nights involved sitting with friends and family around a table enjoying great food, wine and conversation.  What if you could do that and learn and experience different cultures?  Epicurean Travel is for those who want to experience the intersection of history, culture and cuisine.  We arrange travel to selected destinations for small groups of inquisitive travelers.  Our goal to bring people together to experience travel that provides them with new experiences introduces them to new people and ideas.

I wanted to create travel opportunities for those who may not have a travel companion, as well as those who love to travel with friends and family.  Luxury travel designed to immerse you in the culture of the places you visit.