For many people, a single chance encounter can end up dramatically altering the course of their lives. Sarannah McMurtry—now the vice president and general counsel at Acceptance Insurance, a 1,300-employee company with more than 340 agency stores that span fifteen states—credits a German teacher at MacArthur High School in San Antonio, Texas, with guiding her to be where she is today.
“If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have gone to college,” McMurtry explains. “She took me under her wing. She took an interest in me personally—not just whether or not I was learning German, but what my interests were, what my family situation was. I didn’t see college in my future, and she did.”
A first-generation college graduate, McMurtry went from Texas State University–San Marcos to Rutgers Law. After a brief period working with attorneys as a paralegal, McMurtry knew that she had what it took to be a lawyer. She decided to apply for law schools in a part of the country that had always fascinated her, but to which she had previously never been.
“I had no idea what to expect, other than that it seemed like a really fun thing to do,” McMurtry says. “I fell in love with New Jersey. It was a great state with great opportunities.”
McMurtry excelled in law school and quickly took advantage of the abounding opportunities. One was a position as a summer law clerk with a large law firm in New Jersey. Partner Michael Brennan would eventually hire McMurtry in a full-time capacity.
“Michael helped me nurture my law career,” McMurtry says. “He helped me understand how to practice law, how to be an ethical attorney, and how to be diligent and to do good work. And he trusted me. He let me argue a case to the New Jersey Supreme Court three years out of law school.”
After a few years in private practice, McMurtry moved to Tennessee and was recruited by Acceptance Insurance, at the time a budding company in the process of major transformation.
“Transferring from a law firm to a corporation was a big change,” McMurtry admits. Though she missed going to court, the casual Fridays at Acceptance were a welcome change.
“The biggest challenge to me was trying to figure out how to operate in this corporate business environment. It’s a different world,” McMurtry says. Nevertheless, she recalls it as an exciting opportunity. “They were looking for counsel to come in and help establish, model, and enhance their claims operation.”
Using all of the skills and relationships she had built throughout her career as a lawyer, McMurtry revamped the claims and litigation processes with the claims management team in an effort to encourage proactive claims handling and mitigate extracontractual liabilities. McMurtry also headed a team that rewrote all auto policy contracts and audited and updated all policy applications and related policy documents. In just a short time, she helped bring the company into regulatory compliance, significantly mitigating the company’s risk profile.
Acceptance Insurance offers auto coverage for clients who are on the higher end of the risk spectrum. “Everyone needs insurance to make sure all drivers are protected,” McMurtry says. The particular nature of Acceptance’s business model, however, renders its billing systems all the more critical. McMurtry has advanced several major projects that provide customers with options for down payments, modified billing cycles, and policy reinstatements, all of which allow customers to afford insurance and stay insured.
As of July 2020, McMurtry has spent thirteen and a half years at Acceptance—half of her entire legal career. She continues to be struck by the way in which the company operates and the ways in which it differs from a traditional private practice law firm.
“Our culture here at Acceptance is very much devoted to the idea that we are one team,” McMurtry says. “It doesn’t matter whether you are in our retail sales operation, or you’re in our treasury department, or you’re in our claims operation—we all function together as a team, and our goal is to work collaboratively.”
This culture, McMurtry says, is a perfect match for the leadership style that she has developed over the years. “I’ve always considered myself to be very collaborative in my leadership,” McMurtry says. “As a lawyer, what you strive to be and what I think I have accomplished is that I want to be a facilitator and not a dictator.”
A common leadership pitfall, McMurtry argues, is that lawyers operate from the top down, using their position and familiarity with the law to mandate how things should be done.
“But sometimes, the law is not the whole picture. You have to put the law in context of what you’re trying to accomplish,” McMurtry says. “We can accomplish a lot of things by being able to work together and think things through together.”
Working collaboratively, of course, is made easier when the team you work with is exceptionally smart and creative—and that is certainly the case for Acceptance’s team, McMurtry says.
“What I can do is help them keep moving forward and lead them by making sure they are doing it the right way.”