Aimee Nolan’s Building Blocks of Success

W.W. Grainger’s associate general counsel shares the three winning habits that helped her build a thriving in-house legal career

Imagine that you run a commercial or industrial building. Odds are that W.W. Grainger sells everything you will need to maintain it, from janitorial supplies to power tools to light bulbs to video surveillance systems. If what you’re trying to maintain, though, is your legal career, you should forego Grainger’s famous catalog and instead consult Aimee Nolan, the company’s associate general counsel and chief intellectual property counsel.

A veteran of the Chicago-based company, Nolan joined Grainger’s legal team in 1998 as an intellectual property and corporate lawyer. She began her career in-house at beauty products giant Helene Curtis prior to its 1996 acquisition by Unilever, and she subsequently was an associate at Chicago law firms Rudnick & Wolfe (now DLA Piper), as well as Keck, Mahin & Cate, which closed its doors in 1997.

“It was a bit early in my career to be returning in-house,” Nolan recalls. “As a young lawyer, I felt like I needed to earn my stripes for several more years at an outside firm, but when I was presented with the chance to work at Grainger, I knew it was an opportunity I shouldn’t pass up. So I made the jump and have been here ever since.”

Originally from a suburb of Detroit, Nolan was destined for the legal profession from the outset.

“My dad actually has a cassette tape recording where he asks me what I want to be when I grow up and I say, ‘I want to be a ballerina or a lawyer,’” laughs Nolan, who was inspired by her uncle—also an attorney. “Everyone in the family always thought of my uncle with great esteem. He was the go-to person if you needed advice or counsel, and I was always curious about that mysterious knowledge everyone seemed to trust and respect so much.”

But channeling this curiosity to build a thriving in-house career at a Fortune 500 company took more than a law degree, according to Nolan. She attributes her personal and professional success to three career-building habits: seeking opportunity, developing relationships, and giving back to others.

SEEKING OPPORTUNITY

Nolan has spent the majority of her career helping to strengthen the bond between the company’s legal and business teams in order to help achieve common goals. It has become a foundation for her success that she has taken tremendous pride in since joining the company.

“I’ve looked across the company and identified areas where there were important initiatives or key groups that did not have dedicated legal support, and I’ve volunteered to do that work,” explains Nolan, whose enthusiasm for serving the business has continually opened new doors for her. “Seeking opportunity has been a guiding principle for my career because it has allowed me to have experiences and learn skills that I would not otherwise have the chance to gain.”

One example that she is particularly proud of is her contribution to Grainger’s intellectual property (IP) portfolio. When she joined the company, one of her mentors was Tom Farquer, a senior IP and technology attorney working to help Grainger more strategically manage its patents, copyrights, trademarks, and other creative assets. When he fell ill, Nolan partnered with him to execute his vision, even though she had no prior experience with patent law.

“I wanted to make sure his goals were carried out while he was gone, so I quickly partnered with our outside patent counsel to learn that discipline,” Nolan says. She subsequently helped establish a dedicated IP team within the business that is led by the director of IP.

Likewise, Nolan is currently helping Grainger mature its cybersecurity framework and processes to include a more formal privacy organization charged with protecting personal data.

“We had someone in the organization who was working in that function and left,” recalls Nolan, adding that Grainger has the country’s eleventh-largest e-commerce business, with online sales that total about $5 billion. “I realized how important this work was to the company and our road map for growth, so I again partnered with outside counsel and formed relationships with experts to learn the area, which allowed me to provide effective counseling and the leadership needed for success.”

DEVELOPING RELATIONSHIPS

Relationships are crucial for in-house lawyers, according to Nolan, who says she wouldn’t be where she is today without her extensive network.

“Developing relationships is one of the most important things you do as an in-house lawyer because you’re not someone who can sit at your desk and read contracts in isolation all day; your goal is to be a trusted advisor and business partner that facilitates your company’s goals,” Nolan says.

She also says the secret to strong relationships is being accessible, proactive, engaging, and providing pragmatic guidance. “If you don’t build trust and confidence with those you work with, you can’t sit at the table with them and help them work through business problems,” she says.

Building relationships inside the organization helps a lawyer be seen by their customers as a resource instead of an obstacle. Building external relationships, meanwhile, helps in-house lawyers create value for these customers by engaging them with a network that can be a source of new knowledge.

“I can’t overstate how certain outside counsel have been strategic partners for our company,” Nolan says.

These strong relationships have allowed Grainger to take advantage of alternate fee arrangements and creative staffing solutions during times of need.

The same relationships have also helped Nolan infuse Grainger with fresh thinking during times of growth. For example, in 2016, she facilitated two continuing education sessions for Grainger staff and their customers, utilizing outside counsel and business leaders as guest speakers on topics such as product regulatory compliance and the customer data life cycle. Designed to share legal thinking with business staff and vice versa, these sessions helped Nolan strengthen internal relationships by introducing new knowledge to her customers, as well as strengthen external relationships by giving vendors an opportunity to showcase their expertise.

It also was educational for members of the legal team, who received a snapshot of the business that many of them had not previously seen. This was a unique project, as each event was designed so it could be repeated, either in whole or in modules, for other internal audiences or externally at legal education programs.    

“It was a win-win for everyone,” Nolan says.

GIVING BACK

The final feather in Nolan’s cap is her time, which she gives generously to people, causes, and organizations that she deeply cares about.

Among the organizations to which she dedicates herself is the Judd Goldman Adaptive Sailing Foundation, a Chicago-based organization that uses modified sailboats to make sailing on Lake Michigan accessible for people with disabilities. This helps participants in achieving self-esteem and independence.

She also participates actively at her children’s school, and engages in formal as well as informal mentoring while at Grainger.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us who are fortunate to share our time and skills to help others,” Nolan says. She not only gives back to show gratitude for the opportunities she’s experienced in the past, but also to instill gratitude in her two daughters for the opportunities they will have in the future. “It’s important for me to be a role model for my children so they see there’s always time to be made for others beyond yourself,” she continues.

Take it from someone who works for a company that sells almost every supply a business might buy: You can’t purchase a successful legal career, but with the right priorities, you can certainly create one for yourself.