Imagine a world divided. One side is filled with people who want to be part of the solution, part of finding answers and executing change. On the other side is everybody else.
Susan Comparato, senior vice president and US general counsel at Argo Group, stands solidly on the first side. In fact, to her mind, you don’t have much of a choice if you want to be an effective in-house lawyer. An in-house lawyer’s purpose is to “protect, enable, and grow” their companies, Comparato says. Their primary mandate is to protect the company and its reputation, but they should also help expand the company’s interests by finding creative solutions when faced with new proposals or challenges.
“Unlike at a law firm, where you can just get bombarded by the sheer volume of work, you can pick the areas where you want to have an impact in an in-house role,” Comparato explains. “You don’t have to stay in the ‘lawyer lane.’ Figure out where you can bring a useful perspective, where you have something to offer, and then lean hard into those particular areas.
“Most importantly,” Comparato continues, “you need to figure out how to say to your business partners in those areas, ‘I hear you, and I understand your challenges. Maybe we can’t do exactly what you were thinking, but here’s an idea that I think has an acceptable level of risk.’”
Comparato knows firsthand how helpful it is to hear that from an in-house attorney. Prior to accepting her current position at Argo, Comparato served as CEO, president, and board director of Syncora Holdings, a monoline financial guarantee insurer based in New York. During her nine years in that position, Comparato worked closely with the company’s attorneys to see Syncora through its worst days.
“After the financial crisis, just about all of the products we had written were in distress. The company itself was in terrible distress,” Comparato remembers. “Every day, we thought the company might go under, so we were fighting just to keep it alive.”
“In-house lawyers need to be able to think about what kinds of solutions they can bring to their department.”
Comparato, who was initially promoted to acting CEO from her role as general counsel and managing director of Syncora Guarantee, leveraged her particular combination of experiences in structured products and credit enhancement as well as her history in helping start the company and deep knowledge of the company’s corporate structure.
This was a pivotal point in her career, Comparato says. She was not only transitioning from in-house counsel to senior business leader but also responsible for managing a company embroiled in chaos. “Such enormous changes were coming at me, often completely unexpectedly, and it never stopped,” Comparato says. “When you’re in distress, you have to change. And I saw a massive number of changes. I had to deal with a whole host of new regulatory issues, I had a board of directors wanting to hear from me all the time, and at the same time I had to immerse myself in completely unfamiliar issues to try to figure out what happened with all the risks and systems that went wrong.”
Eventually, after years of restructuring the business, Comparato says she helped pick Syncora up off its feet and make good on its financial obligations. But in 2018, she decided to transition back into a legal role, joining Argo. “I liked helping fix Syncora, and I had good results,” Comparato laughs. “But I thought it would be a better fit for my personality to join a growing business. When I came on, it was so exciting to see all Argo had done already and to think about where they could go in future.”
This ties back to her focus on “growing” a company as well as protecting it—wherever she works and in whatever role, Comparato wants to know that she is influencing the organization’s future. “Sometimes lawyers are in roles or companies where they don’t really see what their efforts are yielding,” Comparato explains. “But at Argo I can see all the changes I’m helping make. The company’s leadership is so committed to innovation and to using technology to enhance the business, which is all just so exciting.”
At Argo, Comparato is continuing in her quest to be part of the solution. Legal departments, particularly at companies in “staid” industries like insurance, are often the last ones to see any sort of innovation. But that doesn’t make sense, says Comparato. “In-house lawyers need to be able to think about what kinds of solutions they can bring to their department,” she notes. “They need to be able to spend time on higher-value work, which means that we have to look to technology, data, and automation to free them up and give them that time.”
Gordon & Rees Scully Mansukhani:
“Susan, an SVP and US general counsel, manages risk and protects corporations at the highest level. She leads by example with high energy and cares deeply about her work at Argo Group US—and most of all, about the people with whom she works and interfaces. It is an honor to work with Susan as her outside counsel.”