The shift from public to private

John Ale transitioned from private practice to in-house—twice. He shares insights from his time as a manager and business partner

Many attorneys transition from private practice to in-house counsel, but John Ale is unique: he has made that transition twice.

After law school, Ale seemed destined to be a litigator. He joined a business practice at Vinson and Elkins and spent more than ten years with Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom.

Ale’s first general counsel position was at Azurix, which developed water infrastructure in the emerging world. When a global currency crisis forced the sale of the company, he became a partner in Skadden’s energy and infrastructure projects practice group. Now, he is general counsel for Southwestern Energy, the third largest producer of natural gas in the lower forty-eight states.

Ale credits another attorney for his in-house transition. “I had a mentor who told me, ‘You never seriously ask yourself what you’re going to be doing fifteen years in the future. It just happens,’” Ale says. “But in both instances, I was approached with an opportunity to work with great people and tackle a new set of goals and challenges.”

One of those challenges was to handle a broader scope of responsiblities than he’d been accustomed to as a litigator, including setting company guidelines. But Ale enjoys participating in finding business solutions and developing strategies to address clients’ issues earlier in the problem-solving process than is possible in private practice.

Changing Venues

When he moved in-house, Ale had to acclimate himself to new markets, processes, and personalities—all facets that he needed to understand in much greater depth than when he’d been consulted as an outside attorney.

Ale found that his biggest challenge was to integrate himself into an established legal team, which he characterizes as “being the boss over people who know more about the company than you do.” To address this issue and forge new relationships, he relied on a strategy that has served him well in all areas of his professional life.

“You gain people’s confidence and create relationships by being more of a coach than a boss,” Ale says. “You have to get to know them as people and understand what they do, both on the legal and commercial sides of a business. You grab a cup of coffee with them, sit down in the cafeteria, and begin to break down walls that stand in the way of creating a network. They also get to know you as a person, not just as ‘the lawyer.’”

As part of his personal initiation, Ale always put himself “in the weeds” on several projects in order to get used to communicating with his staff—and vice-versa—and to become more familiar with the business.

“You gain people’s confidence and create relationships by being more of a coach than a boss.”

“Wading into unfamiliar territory has been a great way to work with the team, to learn more about them and how they tackle problems,” Ale says. “It also means that I can feel more confident in their abilities to handle the next similar deal without having to second-guess
their work.”

Building a Better Counselor

Ale admits that there were habits he had to give up when he changed venues. In private practice, he always reviewed every page of every document on every deal. He has since learned to delegate to members of his team.

The general counsel believes his experience as both an external and internal adviser has made him a better counselor overall. It enables him to share valuable skills with clients and with his legal team.

Off the Cuff with John Ale

Modern Counsel: Which three words best describe you?

John Ale: Listener, doer, thinker.

MC: What do you believe is possible that others don’t?

JA: You can coax people into looking at the world differently.

MC: What is your favorite legal term and why?

JA: “Mere.” A quasi-legal term often used to disguise important issues.

MC: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

JA: Don’t let work take time and attention away from your family.

MC: What’s one thing few people know about you?

JA: I swim a mile every day.

For example, when he returned to private practice from Azurix, he worked with a client who faced the possibility of financial reorganization.

“It was very helpful to have been through the analysis of a company’s financial situation from an inside perspective. It gave me insights that you simply don’t have as a private practitioner who just does the deal and hasn’t been through the internal research and strategizing,” Ale says.

Conversely, Ale has brought private practice acumen to his in-house teams, as well. “As outside counsel, you usually know what skills and knowledge you’re lacking. What I’ve learned and always share with my staff is that it’s okay to admit what you don’t know and to ask someone else to provide that expertise,” he explains. “It produces better results and builds better relationships than trying to cover up areas where you’re not an expert.”

Along those lines, Ale has helped build stronger connections with Southwestern Energy’s various business lines by reorganizing his team.

Individual lawyers are assigned to serve specific divisions or corporate functions. They attend weekly meetings and work on the associated day-to-day matters in order to gain a better understanding of the challenges each team faces and how it operates.

Though his career was initially rooted in a completely different practice area, Ale’s skills and demeanor make him perfectly suited for the volatility of the energy industry.

Aside from an affinity for
handling the financial details that are part of such a capital-intensive business, he says he’s a listener. “I use that quality to understand what’s motivating people’s behaviors,” he says. “It’s an effective strategy for finding solutions that benefit both parties in a negotiation and also address and anticipate the changing market factors that impact them both.”