Following a successful run of in-house positions at companies like GE and NBC, Leela Mookerjee has transitioned from being one of many lawyers to becoming one of six people in the legal department. Now vice president and corporate counsel of Life Storage, one of the world’s largest self-storage companies, Mookerjee knows the value of working closely with her team and outside counsel to unite a company stretched across North America.
Mookerjee started her career in New York City. “After undergrad, a few of my friends and I moved to the city, where I had a job as a paralegal. This job cemented for me the fact that I wanted to be a lawyer,” Mookerjee says. So she returned to her hometown of Buffalo to pursue a law degree.
After completing law school and later collecting an LLM from Georgetown, Mookerjee returned to New York City. For a little while, she worked in international tax at Deloitte, but then she switched tracks to pick up some law firm experience. “I did the law firm thing for about five years, and it was like every other New York City law firm experience—late nights, screaming, all very transactional,” she jokes.
Following those five years, she knew it was time to move to an in-house position. At the time, her firm neighbored NBC within the Rockefeller Center buildings, which, for Mookerjee, was quite a fortuitous location. “NBC was right next door and I had always wanted to work there—and then suddenly, I had a job there. It was honestly a dream come true,” she recalls.
At the time, NBC, previously owned by GE, was acquired by Comcast, so her transition from performing hybrid tax and corporate work at NBC to becoming strictly a corporate lawyer at GE was relatively seamless.
“GE took me on, and at that point, I knew that I’d rather be a corporate lawyer than a tax lawyer, because as a tax lawyer, you can become pigeonholed within various sections of the code. You don’t end up seeing the bigger picture,” she explains.
Because of her tax experience, GE appointed Mookerjee as general counsel for the tax department, but following the 2008 financial crisis, GE underwent a colossal systemic restructuring. “They made the decision to get rid of their capital arm, and I worked on that unwind for about two years. At the end of the unwind, they decided to also unwind the tax department, and subsequently sold the department to PwC,” she recounts.
Although Mookerjee did not necessarily have to leave GE and move to PwC with the tax department, she made the personal decision to do so to be close to her father, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease at the time. “I wanted to be closer to my mom and dad, and because I could work from home with PwC, my family and I moved back to Buffalo,” she says.
Soon enough, Mookerjee was itching to be back in-house, which led to her current role at Life Storage as the first lawyer the company hired. The second lawyer was hired in spring 2020.
Mookerjee’s prior experiences varied dramatically, but none presented quite the challenges she now faces as the leader of a small legal team, composed of two lawyers and four paralegals.
“At NBC and GE, there are thousands of lawyers, paralegals and systems in place, but at Life Storage it’s just a handful of us in the legal department. The main challenge that I have had to navigate is how to problem-solve with the team of paralegals or find the appropriate outside counsel,” she explains.
“Because Life Storage operates in twenty-nine different states and Canada, there are so many different legal codes to stay on top of. We have had to do a lot of reconnaissance and do a lot of things all by ourselves that I would normally outsource,” she says.
While this seems like a huge undertaking, Mookerjee enjoys it, as she gets the opportunity to deal with new areas of law. “In self-storage, securing our tenants’ personal property stored in the units is our highest priority. That said, if the tenants become delinquent in their rent, that personal property is our only recourse for recovering past due rent. There are lien laws, which differ in all twenty-nine states and Canada, but that is a last resort. Our priority is to negotiate with the tenants to get them back their belongings,” Mookerjee says.
Additionally, Mookerjee says that she feels a unique sense of ownership in her role. “Here, the different jurisdictions feel cross-border, but it’s only two thousand employees versus three hundred thousand. You speak to people who are actually on the ground and at the facilities, and that feels more tangible,” she explains.
“There is more ownership here versus being on a deal with something like fifty other lawyers,” she continues. “Being on the Life Storage team has been amazing. It’s really wonderful to be working for an incredible organization and the head of its legal team, and I’m really proud of that.”
“Problem solver. Visionary. Leader. Leela Mookerjee has risen to the top of her profession for good reason. She has an eye for pragmatic, effective solutions that make her the go-to person on every issue.”
–Frederick G. Attea, Senior Counsel