Be Prepared to Be Unprepared

New Penn Financial’s Philip Italiano does it all by staying one step ahead

Philip Italiano manages success the way many people manage the end of an earthquake. His role as vice president of legal at New Penn Financial means accounting for the individual needs of three separate sales channels, all with differing structure, hierarchy, and organization.

Italiano has to ensure that his recommendations—while sound for one channel—don’t result in setting off a series of conflicting aftershocks. Maintaining three sometimes competing interests can be formidable, but it’s just one of the many challenges undertaken by he and his team at the Pennsylvania-based mortgage lender.

In his fourth year at New Penn Financial, Italiano says the legal team continues to take on new projects and roles.

“I’m responsible for quite a variety of areas,” he says. “That’s a function of being a small legal department of a relatively new company.”

With two recent acquisitions and a continually expanding footprint both geographically and in the workforce, Italiano says that his team continues to collect new responsibilities. Escalated compliance issues, litigation management, contracts, leases, customer complaints, state and federal exams, marketing compliance, transactional matters, strategic acquisitions, and corporate governance all fall under Italiano and his team of three attorneys, along with a separate licensing arm that rolls up to legal.

Although the variety of projects and matters was a new experience in his role as in-house counsel, Italiano says he believes his prior experience played a key role in preparing him to tackle a variety of ongoing projects.

Prior to joining New Penn, Italiano served as outside counsel to financial institutions and middle market business in a variety of contexts. The specialization of law required at larger law firms, however, didn’t appeal to him.

“I was fortunate to work for many attorneys that granted my request to take on new projects and new matters,” he says. “Those experiences gave me not only a substantive legal background, but the drive to continue to learn new things, to manage different types of projects that move at different paces.”

Italiano approaches project management at New Penn with an analytical mind. He maintains what he calls an “evolving map of strategic initiatives and discreet projects” and spends time each day prioritizing and preparing for how they might be completed. Some days that might only be five or ten minutes, but it’s enough to keep him and his team on track.

Organization, Italiano says, is a constantly tweaked and fine-tuned effort. Every night, he checks the following day’s calendar, paying specific attention to the meetings that he didn’t schedule. For those meetings that are under his purview, Italiano says it’s important to be judicious about meeting times. He works to keep meetings short and ensures every participant leaves with an action plan to prevent the same meeting from happening again a week later. Italiano also says he tries to be continually cognizant of the value of stakeholders’ time and not to waste it.

Although it may not be specific to the legal department, Italiano says that e-mail management is one of the greatest challenges in terms of time management. He purposefully blocks off an hour each day to attend to his inbox.

“The volume of e-mail traffic is so great. It’s easy to lose hours or even days reviewing or responding to e-mails, managing attachments, or filing important communications,” he says. “You can’t let that hijack your day.”

The importance of his team’s multifaceted nature requires continually evolving skill sets. He says to be effective, lifelong learning is essential. Be it in law, new areas in the industry, or even technologies that may not be as natural to those in the industry, effective lawyers have to be willing to engage new ideas and avenues.

“It makes you better as counsel and someone within your organization,” he says.

To be an effective leader, you also have to leave preconceived notions behind.

“You have to come in with some humility and with a willingness to learn and a drive to make your voice heard,” Italiano continues, adding that in-house counsel will sometimes be asked to advise on matters in which they’re not experts, and that they need to think about the most effective and efficient way to provide advice with the resources that they have. “You need to be creative and resourceful and willing to go that extra mile to figure out the best solution.”

“You have to come in with some humility and with a willingness to learn and a drive to make your voice heard. You need to be creative and resourceful and willing to go that extra mile to figure out the best solution.”

Outside counsel have the luxury of making a recommendation, advising about the risks of one of many options, and then handing it off to decision-makers. But Italiano’s role requires taking that decision one step further to making a firm recommendation and living with the consequences. Standing by those recommendations is part of earning respect from his team.

When it comes to respect, Italiano also talks about it being earned in unsung places—particularly when part of a small department. He says that being willing to undertake smaller matters is required of a strong leader. It could be getting a loan through the system or responding to a state regulator’s records request, but “when your employees know that you’re willing to pitch in on mundane matters for the greater good, you earn their respect,” says Italiano.

That sentiment is a callback to his father’s leadership style. Despite their contrasting personalities, Italiano says he’s the more reserved of the two. “If I ever found myself in leadership role, his style would be one I would want to emulate,” Italiano says.
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Blank Rome LLP:

Phil is the total package: laser-focused legal analysis, a winning attitude, and unparalleled leadership. I am grateful and privileged to have the opportunity to work with and learn from Phil.

—Michael A. Iannucci, Partner 

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Rubin Fortunato:

“In every matter we work on with Phil, he invariably demonstrates the attributes that make him an ideal partner: intelligence, business acumen, decisiveness, availability, and responsiveness. His tremendous success is no accident.”

—Michael J. Fortunato, Esq., President, Shareholder