It’s safe to say that Katherine Gates’s work extends far beyond the realm of legal matters, particularly in managing the environmental function for a company that operates in a highly regulated industry.
Further expanding on this unique concept, it’s in her role as SunCoke Energy’s senior vice president, general counsel, and chief compliance officer that Gates finds herself participating in a wide array of projects encompassing technology, operations, and environmental matters, in addition to her legal responsibilities.
Formerly a principle at Beveridge & Diamond, and having previously worked with SunCoke as external counsel, Gates left private practice to go in-house at SunCoke. “I really enjoyed the work that I did for SunCoke while at Beveridge & Diamond and found myself intrigued with the company’s state-of-the art technology and unique position within the steel-making value chain,” Gates says.
SunCoke Energy is a raw materials processing and handling company, serving the global steel, coal, and power industries. The company occupies an exclusive space in its industry as the only independent manufacturer of high-quality metallurgical coke in the United States, a critical raw material input for blast-furnace production of virgin iron and steel.
“Coke is essentially pure carbon,” Gates explains. “Operationally, metallurgical coal is placed into our coke ovens and is refined so that the carbon remains. Each of our plants produces a large amount of coke to fuel our blast-furnace customers’ needs.”
The company is widely regarded as the expert in the science and technology of cokemaking, with modern facilities that utilize advanced heat-recovery technology. Gates touts SunCoke’s innovations, as this heat-recovery technology sets the new, best-available control technology, or lowest-achievable emission rate standards, for coke plants in the United States.
“We have set the environmental baseline for constructing a new cokemaking facility in the US based on our advanced heat-recovery technology,” Gates says.
Comparatively, all other US cokemaking operations employ by-product technology, which generate by-products that must be treated or otherwise utilized.
Given SunCoke’s focus on technology and environmental performance, Gates’s background and skill set make her well-suited for this role. In addition to her time at Beveridge & Diamond, she clerked for the US Department of Justice and the US Environmental Protection Agency. These experiences have prepared her for a role that involves litigation, environmental compliance, government relations, commercial negotiations, intellectual property (IP), and compliance, in addition to the corporate and securities work necessary for a public company such as SunCoke.
“For our significant environmental matters, we have an excellent cross-functional team consisting of our environmental director, vice president of engineering and technology, myself, and in some cases outside counsel.”
Gates’s legal background provided deep understanding of environmental law and enables her to manage the environmental function in a highly regulated industry. And, because environmental compliance and performance is part of plant operations, understanding those operations is essential for both Gates and SunCoke.
“While I came to SunCoke with litigation and environmental skills from private practice, my management of the environmental function and counsel on environmental matters would not be as persuasive without strong knowledge of the operations,” Gates says.
That knowledge comes from spending time at the coke plants and working closely with plant personnel, operations, environmental team members, and the engineering and technology department.
This collaboration is another reason why Gates enjoys working for SunCoke.
“For our significant environmental matters, we have an excellent cross-functional team consisting of our environmental director, vice president of engineering and technology, myself, and in some cases outside counsel,” Gates says. “We all work extremely hard, and enjoying who you work with improves the quality of the work we do.”
While operational knowledge may seem unrelated to her legal responsibilities, Gates insists that it’s important to understand the company’s operations to provide the best legal counsel. This operational knowledge increases her effectiveness not only with the environmental function but also with other responsibilities such as litigation, negotiation, compliance, and commercial matters.
“Joining SunCoke has allowed me the opportunity to leverage my previous legal and environmental experiences while also further developing my understanding of our operations,” Gates says. “It’s this combination that has been absolutely critical to successfully performing my role.”
This comprehensive knowledge of both SunCoke Energy and its industry is often praised by the company’s outside counsel. “Katherine always takes a proactive approach to tackling issues and evaluates new, innovative, and cost-effective ways to improve how the company does business,” says Philip B. Phillips, Detroit office managing partner at Foley & Lardner LLP. “She also effectively leverages prior experience and insists on developing lessons learned to help reduce risk going forward.”
“Since her appointment as general counsel, Katherine has faced an array of challenging and high-profile issues in a thoughtful, thorough, and effective way,” adds Michael Swidler, partner, capital markets and mergers and acquisitions, at Vinson & Elkins.”