Bhavin Patel Finds His Way

AGC Bhavin Patel recounts his not-so-clear path to the law and reflects on the values that prompted him to finally plant his feet at Compass Group USA

“Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was be a pilot,” says Bhavin Patel, assistant general counsel at Compass Group USA. “I wanted to fly—first, as a cargo plane pilot in the military, and then eventually as an international commercial airline pilot. My room was always filled with pictures of planes and model airplanes.”

But when Patel joined the Air Force Reserve after graduating from high school, his dreams of becoming a pilot ground to a halt. “When I took my physical, I found out that I was partially color-blind,” Patel explains. “Even now, most Doppler radar is color coded. But I had already taken the oath, so I decided to stay.”

Patel served in the Air Force Reserve for more than ten years, during which time he obtained a bachelor’s degree as well as his JD. But for Patel, his path to the law was by no means clear and straightforward.

“When I first got to college, I thought I would study aerospace engineering so that I could at least still work on planes. But all the math and science intimidated me,” Patel recalls with a laugh. “I looked into a lot of other options and ended up taking an African American studies class with a fairly significant civil rights component.

“I learned things in that class that I never would have anywhere else,” the AGC continues. “And one of my favorite topics in the class was constitutional law as it applied to cases like Brown v. Board [of Education].”

But even after discovering his passion for the law, Patel says, he did not immediately think of going to law school. “I had a good friend in college who was also taking legal and law enforcement classes, and we decided that becoming police officers was what was going to make us happy,” he says, chuckling. “But the more classes I took, the more I realized that I was far more passionate about the law than about legal enforcement.”

“Though Compass knows that it has to make a profit, this company truly cares about folks. I always feel that I have opportunities to help take care of our employees.”

The University of Tulsa College of Law may not have been “the highest-ranked law school in the nation,” Patel says, but it was an incredible learning experience for him. During his three years in the JD program at Tulsa, Patel was continually inspired by his professors’ zeal for everything from contract law to public defense work. Patel himself considered becoming a public defender for a time and even completed an internship with the district attorney in Golden, Colorado, during his final year in law school.

After graduating, Patel took the Colorado bar, moved to Chicago, and then moved back to Colorado to work at a midsize law firm in Denver. “I did some criminal defense work, some commercial litigation, and some employment law,” Patel says. “And I did like the employment law side of things, but at the time, I never thought that that was what I was going to exclusively practice.”

But just a few years after joining the firm, Patel was recruited to the Mountain States Employers Council, where he focused on administrative employment and labor law. Patel dreamed of transitioning in-house, though, and in August 2007, he accepted a position on the in-house team at Compass Group USA.

“When I applied, I honestly thought at first that I was applying to work at Compass Bank. I had never heard of Compass Group,” Patel says, laughing. “But now I’ve been here almost thirteen years, and we joke that we’re the biggest company on the planet that nobody’s ever heard of.”

At Compass, a family of companies specializing in food, hospitality, and support services, Patel has finally found work that he loves just as much as the thought of being a pilot. “I wanted to get into law in order to advocate for individuals,” he explains. “I never thought I’d work for a corporation. Of course, when I was younger, that was because I had an idealistic view that all corporations were heartless.

“Some corporations probably are,” he adds. But not the one he’s working for. “Though Compass knows that it has to make a profit, this company truly cares about folks. I always feel that I have opportunities to help take care of our employees.”

“I’ve been here almost thirteen years, and we joke that we’re the biggest company on the planet that nobody’s ever heard of.”

As assistant general counsel, Patel helps oversee everything from wage and hour issues to harassment and retaliation matters. But no matter what he’s working on, he always makes a point of being kind: “Especially in employment law, it’s easy to get caught in an adversarial context. These are very personal matters—people dealing with harassment, people calling each other names or racial epithets,” the AGC remarks. “You have to step away from that ‘us versus them’ mind-set and really go the extra mile to be friendly and kind.”

Patel credits his general counsel, Jennifer McConnell, and the other “incredible leadership” in the legal department with setting this kind of emotionally intelligent tone. And according to the AGC, it is that “human touch” that has helped bolster the company’s growth over the years.

“When I started at the company, Compass Group was about a $9 billion company with roughly one hundred and forty thousand employees,” Patel says. “Right now, we’re valued at about $20 billion and have close to two hundred and fifty thousand employees. So our growth has just been astronomical.

“The legal department has expanded a lot as well,” Patel continues. “But no matter how much our teams change, everyone working here remains excited about the work. There are no big egos, no chest thumpers. In the legal department, caring for the people around us is just as important as looking out for the interests of the company.”

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Fisher Phillips is honored to be legal advisor to Compass Group USA. Fisher Phillips provides practical business solutions for employers’ workplace legal problems. We congratulate Bhavin on this well-earned recognition in Modern Counsel. fisherphillips.com

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Littler proudly congratulates our client and friend, Bhavin Patel, on his achievements and well-earned recognition. Bhavin’s value-driven leadership epitomizes Compass Group’s culture. We value our partnership and look forward to what we will accomplish together.