For J.P. Bartley, the legal profession spans at least five family generations and has been an integral part of his life since he was a kid. Many of the lessons he has learned over the years can still be used to this day, both in life and as a general counsel.
At Gorilla, a Chicago-based tech enabled commerce services firm, J.P. Bartley has a lot on his plate. He handles a myriad of tasks from strategic growth initiatives to client and vendor contracts to HR and intellectual property (IP) issues to corporate governance and firm management responsibilities. No two days are alike, which is why the lessons Bartley has acquired over the years are so crucial. Perhaps the most important of which is understanding that legal serves the business and not the other way around. Managing the legal realm for Gorilla is only part of the job, though, and Bartley works hard to ensure to “never let legal get in the way of a good business deal.”
Lessons such as this weren’t the product of law school or the years he spent practicing at Kirkland & Ellis. Most lessons in law and in life are derived from Bartley’s family and their rich history in law. In fact, law in his family goes back at least five generations. His father is a municipal lawyer in downtown Chicago, his grandfather a judge in Las Vegas, and his great-grandfather was a judge in Joliet, Illinois. “My dad has always been my role model,” Bartley says. “Even to this day, he’s the best attorney I’ve ever seen. He is incredibly bright, hardworking, and moral.”
But even with five-plus generations of law in his family, Bartley wasn’t always set on becoming a lawyer. “I think I initially talked myself out of law thinking, ‘Don’t be a lawyer just because your father is a lawyer,’” he recalls. “At the age of twenty-three, who really has everything figured out?”
Instead, Bartley spent time post college in various odd jobs, from substitute teaching to home improvement to catering and bartending. After meeting his wife, he worked a few years as a social worker, counseling juveniles on probation in Will County, Illinois. In this position, he attended court with his juvenile clients and home counseling visits. “Just being in the courtroom on a consistent basis sparked excitement,” Bartley recalls.
So after being newly married, and with some motivating words from his wife, he began to think about what he wanted to do: go back to law school, pay for it himself, and apply himself completely without any excuses. “It was an easy lesson: you work hard at something, you become good at it,” Bartley says.
After law school, Bartley landed a role at Kirkland & Ellis, one of the largest corporate law firms in the world. Though his career was progressing and he had just started a family, Bartley was reminded of how little at times he saw his father growing up and started feeling guilt about being absent from his children’s lives. One Sunday night, his oldest son teared up from not having seen his father the whole weekend. At that moment, Bartley knew his time at a corporate law firm was finished, and he wanted to find passion in what he did.
While still at Kirkland & Ellis, two of Bartley’s fraternity brothers from college had each gone on to start and rapidly grow tech consulting companies. Marc Talluto, a former IT consultant at Accenture, had started Fruition Partners on a shoestring budget. Brian Grady had purchased Gorilla with a small business loan. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, right as the tech industry was starting to boom, Talluto and Grady would occasionally call Bartley for legal advice.
Eventually, that grew into Bartley working with Talluto for Fruition as the company’s first and only legal hire, where Bartley witnessed Fruition grow from twenty people to two hundred in just a few years. Then in the fall of 2015, Bartley assisted Fruition in its sale to Computer Sciences Corporation.
After the sale, Bartley was in a strong position to market himself to Grady. “We had talked two or three years ago, and it wasn’t the right time. Now is the right time, and I have the playbook,” Bartley recalls telling Grady.
With Bartley’s experience at Fruition, the transition to Gorilla was natural. Because he is the only legal counsel at Gorilla, there’s never a dull moment. Day-to-day, Bartley largely works on and negotiates all company contracts and has input on Gorilla’s internal and external policies and procedures. Bartley additionally oversees all of Gorilla’s corporate governance and is a key component to its strategic growth initiatives.
“I’m privileged to sit on the senior management team, so if there are material operational discussions, review of financials or major company decisions, I’m in the room as the legal voice,” Bartley says.
Gorilla has seen tremendous growth over the years, including a number of honors. The company has received accolades from Inc. 5000, Crain’s Fast 50 (for the third consecutive year), ICIC, and the Golden Brontos. “The size of the deals are more exciting, opportunities to acquire companies are more exciting, and the attention we’re getting from the marketplace is more exciting,” Bartley says.
As deal size and company revenue grow, so too does complexity on the client side. “We constantly have to be looking ahead while we’re growing,” he says. “We have to stay agile and diligent enough to capitalize on these ever-growing opportunities as they are materializing.”
According to Bartley, one of the major hurdles a tech enabled services firm faces is growth, from the $20 to $30 million range to the $50 to $70 million range, all ideally without losing that cultural identity. He says that the most important factors aren’t necessarily regarding pay or pension, but rather what the reflection is of the company culture. As Bartley explains, “For much of the work force these days, it’s about, ‘Do I like coming into work every day? Do I like my coworker? Is there a decent work/life balance?’”
As for Bartley, he will be the first to admit his good fortune. “I’m one of the luckiest guys ever. I’m primarily lucky for my family and friends, and I hope I’ve done them right in everything I’ve tried to do,” Bartley says. “But I’m also lucky for the timing and market technology as these companies are experiencing huge growth. It’s like seeing a rocket ship take off in front of your eyes and saying, ‘I’m going to jump on the ride and give it a shot.’”
With guidance from both his own legal experience and his family’s legal experience, there’s a bit of simple advice Bartley has taken with him throughout his career in law: “You need to own what you know, and own what you don’t know. There’s no shame in not knowing something. Early in my career, I wish I wouldn’t have been as uptight about my lack of experience.”
Golan Christie Taglia LLP:
“J.P. is an astute, insightful, strategic thinker. He is also engaging and down-to-earth. Working with him—and the rest of the Gorilla team—is a delight. Cheers, J.P.!”
—Margaret Gisch, Partner