The Fine Art of Leadership

At AkzoNobel, Jason Pollack perfected his approach to advising management. Now, he brings those same skills and a fresh take on approachability to Christie’s.

All day, people walk into Jason Pollack’s office to interrupt him—and he absolutely loves it.

“It is rare for someone to come into my office, ask if I have a moment, and for me to say no,” Pollack says. “I think I could point to less than ten times in the two years I’ve been here where I said, ‘I can’t talk right now.’ That’s me hopefully providing value to the people on my team, because if they’re coming to talk to me, they’re looking for a second point of view on some issue they’re dealing with.”

For Pollack, being approachable to his coworkers is essential. As senior vice president and general counsel of the Americas for Christie’s, the fine-art auction house, he needs to convey authority without intimidation.

“An in-house lawyer does not have the luxury of being a jerk and being successful,” he says. “If an internal client thinks, ‘I’ve got to go talk to the lawyer, this is going to be painful,’ then the working relationship, in the long run, is not set up for success.”

When Pollack started at Christie’s in June 2015, he was a newcomer to the art world. During the first six months, he often asked his colleagues to give him background information when they sought his advice. “They often needed to educate me before I gave an opinion,” he says. To this day, though, Pollack has the industry knowledge he needs to maneuver the legal aspects of the art world—not to mention the legal, interpersonal, and management skills that landed him the position in the first place. He cultivated those skills at AkzoNobel, the Dutch chemical and coatings company, where he worked for nine years before starting at Christie’s. After beginning his career in the New York office of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, Pollack joined AkzoNobel as compliance counsel. Rising through the ranks, he eventually became general counsel of the Americas. And while fine art may be a far cry from industrial chemicals, from an in-house counsel management perspective, the two companies have more similarities than differences, Pollack explains.

“Working in a global legal department, my team members have had to navigate similar issues at both companies,” Pollack says. “How should we divide work across jurisdictions? What level of knowledge should a US lawyer have about EU law, and vice versa? To respond, you consider how you dealt with the issue before and see if that solution will work again.”

The two multinational companies also have a similar approach to maintaining their client relationships. “Every company has really important clients that they must work hard to please,” Pollack says. “Despite having only worked for two companies as in-house counsel, I am certain that dynamic exists almost everywhere.”

Additionally, both companies have required him to interact with global senior management, navigate communications issues, and work quickly. “The pace of work and your to-do lists—they don’t feel very different at Christie’s than they did at AkzoNobel,” Pollack says.

Not only has Pollack had similar responsibilities at both companies, but he’s also had similar challenges. As general counsel of the Americas, he often helps his European colleagues navigate the complexities, expenses, and irrationality of US litigation. “You can only say so many times to your senior management, ‘It’s US litigation. It’s expensive and takes a long time,’” Pollack says. “Even if, ultimately, that truth is indisputable, you need to give more perspective on it and potentially figure out ways to streamline resolutions.”

Pollack also faces certain universal challenges inherent to any general counsel role. Similar to almost all in-house counsel, he evaluates the legal risks implied by potential business decisions. These decisions run the gamut from legally unwise to minimally risky. Once he’s determined the risk level, he then decides how best to offer advice and how far that advice should encroach on commercial dynamics. At both AkzoNobel and Christie’s, some clients invite business input from their lawyers, while others do not.

“Figuring out where the people you work with fall in that spectrum—and a lawyer’s flexibility to change the manner in which they give advice from one business person to the next—is an important skill,” Pollack says. “I think that many people who’ve risen to the level of general counsel are getting that balance right or are very close to it.”

To evaluate a potential business decision, Pollack collaborates with business people who are often not immediately client-facing to first consider the pros and cons of a deal without regard to specific client dynamics. Together, they weigh the commercial risks against the legal ones regularly.

“It goes without saying, but a close relationship with your business people where everybody’s—I’ll use a hokey expression—in it together, is essential,” Pollack says. “When lawyers and business people can work together to successfully weigh the commercial and legal risks inherent in any transaction—whether you are selling a Picasso or marine paint for the landing strip of an aircraft carrier—that’s when your company, from a deal-closing standpoint, is maximizing efficiencies and operating best.”

For all the similarities of his two roles, Pollack has enjoyed certain unique benefits of working at Christie’s. Art auctions garner significant media attention, and Pollack must often consider how the media might respond with respect to the counsel he provides. Furthermore, on top of routinely standing in front of multi-million dollar pieces of art, Christie’s is a much smaller company than AkzoNobel.

That has provided him with plentiful opportunities to interact with the top ranks of senior management and learn how to navigate different personalities. The more working relationships he can establish, the better he can provide counsel, and the more he can learn. “Many individuals at Christie’s have been in the art world for decades. Their knowledge and relationships with their clients are very impressive,” Pollack says. “Every day, I learn something new.”

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Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP:

“Jason is that rare professional who does it all and makes it look effortless: a savvy lawyer at the top of his game, a business leader of integrity, and an honest-to-goodness nice guy with a delightful sense of humor.”

—Daniel Swanson, Partner