Even as a junior associate with New York-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, her first job out of law school, Kerith Davies Knechtel says she knew she wanted to become an in-house counsel—though her ambition sometimes outweighed her more practical instincts.
“Within my first couple years at Debevoise, I interviewed for a couple in-house jobs and realized pretty quickly I didn’t yet have enough experience,” she recalls. “But the more responsibility that I took on, the more confident I became in my ability to be a lawyer. When you start out at a big firm as a junior associate, it takes a while. You have to grow into the role, and fortunately, I was working every day with brilliant lawyers.”
She was also making no secret of her ambition. She took on secondee roles for JPMorgan Chase and Christie’s Real Estate while working at Debevoise, where—in addition to her litigation and employment work—Knechtel assisted with due diligence for M&A transactions and worked on employee benefits. This abundance of well-rounded experiences prepared her nicely for her current role as senior corporate counsel for online travel agency Priceline.
“We’re a small team, but we’re all the jack-of-all-trades type,” she says of the company’s legal department. “We’re asked to advise on a lot of things that might be outside of our own individual experience bases, but that’s what all those hours working with brilliant lawyers on your way up gets you. When you are in-house, you often don’t have the advantage of hours to research. You have the confidence in your own judgment and the knowledge that you can provide good advice on the spot.”
“We’re asked to advise on a lot of things that might be outside of our own individual experience bases, but that’s what all those hours working with brilliant lawyers on your way up gets you.”
That kind of confidence and knowledge base is particularly important as Priceline’s parent company, Booking Holdings, makes strides to pull the legal teams of all of its brands—located all over the world—into a more cohesive, streamlined way of working. Where once many small brands worked in their own silos, Knechtel is now one of the many legal minds being called upon to advise and help guide efforts impacting not only Priceline but also its sister brands around the globe.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been getting to a place where we’re all truly working together on the legal front, across brand lines, as the world becomes more global and we begin facing similar issues regardless of where our home office is based,” she says. “It’s an ongoing effort.” Currently, the legal teams from Priceline and its sister companies participate in quarterly calls on topics including employment law, IP, tax, and short-term rentals, which affect everyone. Reflecting on these many moving pieces, she says, “Legal issues in one country can quickly become issues in another country.”
Nevertheless, Knechtel says she finds neither the scope nor weight of such a global effort to move multiple brands particularly daunting. As she put in her years of work targeting an in-house role, she came to realize that these kinds of multipronged efforts toward streamlining operations would undoubtedly be part of her job description. One of the earliest lessons she learned was that the more brands you can have working in concert, the more leverage you can provide clients in terms of market power and improved efficiencies.
Add to that the fact that Knechtel has never backed down from a challenge. She says she has never been scared of hard work, dating back to childhood, when she worked through daily therapy to overcome early speech impediments.
“I would not let obstacles get in my way,” she says. “Throwing everything you have into your work—whether it’s research, writing motions, or whatever else defines your work ethic—is critical to being a good lawyer. The best lawyers are the ones who find every fact and run down every question. So that tenacity that I developed from a really young age has played out well in my legal career.”
“Throwing everything you have into your work—whether it’s research, writing motions, or whatever else defines your work ethic—is critical to being a good lawyer.”
Knechtel says she’s also thankful that Priceline has a history of legal stewardship at its most senior levels. Both the former and current CEO of Priceline’s parent company have law degrees, and the lead ethics officers at Priceline and Booking Holdings are also lawyers. That kind of built-in, counsel-friendly culture is not always a given, as she has learned from experience with other companies that faced a high volume of business on a daily basis.
“Priceline recognizes the value of its in-house lawyers as business partners, and I think that’s made a huge difference in mitigating some of the day-to-day challenges that in-house counsel face,” she says. “My general counsel is a brilliant lawyer and a great manager. She lets us be autonomous thinkers, but we all support each other.
“On our legal team, we recognize that each one of us has insight to add, even though each of us has different areas of responsibilities,” Knechtel adds. “It’s good to bounce ideas off each other and know that we’re working stronger as a team than just a group of individuals.”
Bradley Arant Boult Cummings LLP:
“Kerith knows what her business clients need and looks for practical and intelligent solutions. In reaching her recommendations, she quickly absorbs and evaluates legal advice while working as a true partner with her outside counsel.”
– Anne Marie Seibel, Partner