The “general” part of being a general counsel

Rather than take the typical route to an in-house role, Christopher Gannon, general counsel for SNF Holding Company, took an alternative path

The path to an in-house position is well-known and established—work in one or more private firms; make connections in a certain industry; receive an offer from a company that trusts you. Christopher Gannon didn’t follow that path. For twenty-seven years, Gannon has worked in-house as a business and legal partner.

“In-house lawyers are overhead, so we need to work hard every day to provide a return on the company’s investment in us,” he says. “Companies don’t have to have in-house lawyers. They could always engage outside counsel. The value that in-house lawyers offer to a company is their breadth of knowledge and experience in many legal disciplines; their capability to identify and recommend commercially reasonable solutions to issues; and their strict focus on assisting the company in achieving—lawfully and ethically—its goals and objectives.”

Gannon has been the general counsel at SNF Holding Company, the global leader in water-soluble polymers, since August 2012. “What I enjoy really is the variety of the work and the opportunity to directly participate in the development and management of the business enterprise,” Gannon says. “Often the legal issue presented by the client is, in reality, a business issue for which the client is seeking an alternative view. It’s in these counseling opportunities where in-house counsel can really add value to the business.”

According to Gannon, the keys to being successful as a general counsel are to be selfless, to check your ego at the door, and to be ready to work hard and fast and make decisions — sometimes, with limited information. He adds that developing and maintaining relationships and a sense of humor help, too. “Typically, your peers are not lawyers, but rather are business leaders with high expectations for immediate response and action by their counsel,” he explains. “Moreover, they expect that you will ‘act like an owner’ by exhibiting the values of the company and readily assuming responsibilities which may exceed the parameters of your actual job description.”

“An in-house lawyer has one client—the corporate entity—but you are working with potentially hundreds of employees with different expectations, needs, and motives,” he says.

Gannon’s path may be atypical for in-house lawyers, but he says he was never interested in private practice. His father and grandfather were lawyers, but Gannon didn’t completely understand what his dad accomplished until he was a teenager.

“I knew my father was an attorney, but I didn’t appreciate what it meant,” Gannon says. “All I really knew was that he wore suits, carried a briefcase, and met with clients every day and often at night. When I was a teenager, I started to understand the nature of his role—a general practitioner in private practice—and how he was helping people on a variety of matters. Over time, I would meet some of his clients who would share with me the impact my father had on their lives. It helped me realize the importance of service to others, and especially how an attorney supports a client.”

Gannon appreciated his father’s role, but he didn’t intend to follow it. He planned to work in the corporate world as soon as he graduated with his bachelor’s degree, but the weak economy of the mid-1980s changed his mind for him.

“I looked for alternatives that would differentiate me in the workplace,” he says. “It was my mother who suggested law school, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

As a law student at Duquesne University, Gannon quickly realized that his goals were much different from those of his classmates. They wanted to join major law firms or clerk for judges, but Gannon wanted to build up his knowledge of business and corporate law.

“That was my plan from the beginning, to go into an in-house role with a company; start at the bottom and develop my career through direct interaction with the business clients,” he says.

His first in-house job was with Lord Corporation, a privately held technology company with only four in-house attorneys. Gannon was immersed in commercial and other matters that required direct interaction with the company’s leadership team. “I quickly realized how much I really didn’t know both about law and business. I had continuous opportunities to learn and develop.”

“In-house lawyers are overhead, so we need to work hard every day to provide a return on the company’s investment in us.” 

Much of his work at Lord Corporation focused on intellectual property. Since then, he has worked in environmental, competition, litigation, governance, joint ventures, commercial transactions, and advertising. “Often I became involved because I sought out the opportunity to work in these areas; in some instances, serving as the ‘junior counsel’ to more experienced attorneys,” Gannon explains. “Never skip the opportunity to learn from others to broaden your capabilities and experience.”

That mantra became crucial during Gannon’s transition to SNF Holdings. He was hired as the company’s first in-house general counsel, and he was tasked with defining what that title meant.

“Having an in-house attorney was a novelty, and some personnel didn’t know when or whether to contact me,” Gannon explains.

Gannon interacted regularly with the company’s staff at all levels so people began to recognize him and his place in the structure. “I spent a lot of time introducing myself and asking how I could help,” Gannon says. “It seemed that every couple of days I’d come across something and ask ‘what’s the current policy or procedure?’ and we didn’t have one, so it’s up to me to identify what that should be or what our customers would expect us to have in place,” he says.

Gannon defined and established SNF’s in-house legal practice. Today, much of his work is to stay apprised of developments in regulations at the local, state, and national level. SNF works in oil and gas, mining, agriculture, municipal and industrial applications—all heavily regulated products.

As he continues to look ahead, Gannon would like his role at SNF to evolve into chief administration officer, a title which would encompass more than legal issues.

“I do bear certain aspects of that role already,” he explains. “I coordinate with two other executives on the administration of our health and welfare benefit plans, and I also serve as corporate media spokesperson.”

It’s a lot for one individual to handle, but Gannon doesn’t mind. “Each of these responsibilities have provided new opportunities to learn and become both a better legal executive and business leader.”