Juggling Water Balloons and Knives: A Day in the Life of a Public Company GC

6 Min Read By: Nicole Linda Kelsey

Every year, I teach a biotechnology practicum to a class of second- and third-year law students enrolled in a ten-week externship program with technology companies in the Bay Area, and I present case studies of real problems I’ve encountered as a public biotech company GC. While my day-to-day responsibilities largely fall within three categories—leadership, management, and the practice of law—a more accurate image of what I do every day is juggle water balloons (delicate and precarious matters) and knives (matters requiring dauntless initiative and strategic precision).


As an executive charged with overseeing all legal matters for the company, I lead my legal team every day toward optimized coordination and partnership with our clients on a broad range of matters, some of them sensitive, others requiring bold business judgment. Because of my 360-degree perspective on the company, combined with my legal and compliance expertise, my broad strategy experience, and my standing as a reliable leader, I’m often asked to opine on enterprise-level (bet-the-company) types of risks.

I serve not only as a sounding board for my CEO and a resource for our board of directors, but also as a “consigliere” for my peers in executive management seeking advice on how to best handle a problem or lead through obstacles to a desired goal. I spend a fair amount of time each week leading my peers by modeling resourcefulness, collaboration, and empathy. And because I’m a lawyer, my fellow executives turn to me for conversations requiring both discretion and diplomacy; I am informally viewed as a back-up CPO. I am often called upon to manage executive peer relationships and leadership team dynamics behind the scenes—which requires unwavering ethics as the foundation for my advice.

Below the executive team, employees in other service or business functions look to me for leadership in navigating risk, especially during periods of uncertainty—complex, high-stakes litigation and investigations; stock price volatility; and competitive defeats, to name a few. And in my role as the head lawyer, I’m expected to model the highest level of ethical standards at the company. Therefore, I believe it is a natural complement to my role to lead on cross-company initiatives critical to the creation and maintenance of my company’s culture. To exemplify this belief, I lead on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), which requires a willingness to listen to a variety of perspectives, an ability to build consensus, and the strength of character to fight for change. I have seized opportunities to use my leadership position, and the political capital that comes with it, to launch new initiatives. Examples include a mentoring program for, and by, women; interactive ways to give back to the community that tie into my company’s mission; company-wide DEI educational and awareness campaigns; and bringing successful women entrepreneurs to share their experiences with our employees. And by serving as the executive sponsor on the board of my company’s women’s group, I seek to continue to improve the conditions for female professional development and advancement, as well as promote broad collaboration with our other employee affiliation groups.

Finally, I take my leadership to the streets. I not only sit on professional practice panels to teach peers about recent developments in substantive areas of the law like M&A, but I also speak regularly on issues relevant to women in the practice of law or in business generally. I speak about the importance of mentoring and sponsorship, not only of women and of lawyers, but across gender and other diversity lines and professional categories. And I practice what I preach; currently, I’m mentoring three senior scientists in my company, two women and one man. I speak out for women and other marginalized people—to lead, to demand equitable opportunities, to be heard. I speak about leadership by women and offer creative approaches to bypass common pitfalls in a female leader’s path. I’m relentless in my own self-education on diversity, bias, and racism and in tackling those issues head-on—not only at my company but also in my industry, within my profession, and in my community. I believe that giving back to my profession, to other women leaders, and to the community at large is my ethical obligation as a lawyer; I learn and grow every time I extend myself as a leader outside my company.


While carrying these leadership responsibilities, I am always taking care of my own team—each member individually and as a unit. I’m currently serving in my second public company GC position, and at the outset, I made a two-pronged promise to my teams: commitment to our company’s mission on the one hand, and a pledge to the development of their individual careers on the other. My pledge requires discernment and conviction: to commit to an individual’s career trajectory even if that trajectory results in the person leaving my team—for another group within the company or for another company entirely. In striving to be the best manager for my team, I sometimes have to prioritize an individual’s growth above the needs of my team and our company. Similarly, I help my team navigate power politics, teach them how to network, guide them to improve through failure, model for them the skills of influence and persuasion, with the ultimate goal to help them turn everyday politics into opportunities for growth and recognition within the company. Here, I must balance thoughtful guidance with adroit maneuvering.


And then there’s the practice of law. Every GC comes to her position with a few areas of substantive legal expertise. I am an M&A lawyer by training, with strategy and securities law expertise. I have more than two decades of experience in corporate governance, compliance, and complex cross-border business and corporate transactions. As a GC, I have built compliance programs from scratch to serve the business activities and operational realities of global organizations. Through my international practice, I have become a multi-jurisdictional corporate governance expert. And through the challenges my companies have faced while I have been at the helm of their legal teams, I have become an experienced litigator and a sophisticated manager of governmental inquiries. I have also learned the practice of intellectual property law, from partnering with scientists and product developers at the ground level to setting top-line global strategy in coordination with the head of R&D and the CEO. I guide my senior team members through complicated transactional developments in negotiations and post-closing disputes while developing their peer and executive management skills. I teach all my team members, regardless of job function or experience level, how to best partner with our clients. I render precise political guidance on how to communicate in each specific situation encountered in their practice. As a GC who actively practices law, I seek to further develop the lawyers on my team to become better lawyers by modeling optimal practice behaviors.


My life as a public company GC is an ongoing juggling act. Simultaneously serving as an executive leader, leading on matters critical to my company’s culture, representing the company externally, managing a legal team and its members, and practicing law means that I have to be constantly vigilant, responsive to critical matters with a steady hand. And I have to be equally fearless and skillful at making the tough decisions. Every day, I balance caution against risk, grace against force: water balloons and knives.

By: Nicole Linda Kelsey


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