At first glance, Bobby Simpson’s résumé doesn’t quite add up. He began his career in a public defender’s office, moved to a law firm, then went back to government service on behalf of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission [EEOC], and is now executive senior counsel for compliance, litigation, and labor and employment at GE Current, a Daintree company. The journey is an unusual one, but it’s clear that Simpson knows what he values, what he wants, and where he wants to spend his time.
“I think some people coming out of law school straitjacket themselves about what they can or should do,” Simpson says. “I hope young lawyers will be open to taking calculated risks that are true to who they are.”
Simpson himself attended law school at Vanderbilt, thinking he would be the next Johnnie Cochran. Neither a clerkship nor a firm job made sense to him after he graduated, even though everyone around him was telling him that taking a traditional path was the best plan. Instead, he took a public defender job with the Commonwealth of Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy.
After two years as a public defender, Simpson spent four years at a firm in Louisville, Kentucky, building out a client list, billing hours, and building relationships. He had honed his legal writing while serving as an appellate lawyer within the public defender’s office—working to get cases overturned in Kentucky’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court. He’d accumulated extensive court experience in the same venues. And his years at a firm gave him experience outside criminal law.
While his firm work introduced Simpson to employment law, which would eventually become one of his main areas of concentration, there was still an entrepreneurial itch that needed to be scratched. “I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak, tempered with a healthy dose of risk-adversity,” he says. “The EEOC was opening up trial offices in their area offices, and this was a chance to informally open up my own shop without having to hang my own shingle.”
Everyone Has a Code
Bobby Simpson has thrived because he has remained true to himself. His own guiding principles might help other lawyers on their own journeys:
- Take well-thought-out risks to move your legal career forward. Never mistake stagnation for security.
- Very early on, develop a strong sense of right and wrong in matters of the law.
- Be careful what you sell of yourself in pursuit of success.
- Resilience is the secret to a long legal career.
- The law is a service profession—always be in service mode.
- Learn something positive from everything, and never stop doing so.
Leaving private practice for the federal government was, again, something that many people in his life advised against. “Leaving the firm wasn’t easy, and I had a lot of people asking me if I’d lost my mind,” Simpson confirms. “But this would be a chance to captain my own ship and develop a program that really spoke to me.”
Simpson says he never looked back. “We were provided a steady diet of complaints about things that people believed may have been discriminatory or inappropriate in the workplace,” he says. “It was our job to work with investigators and determine if there was probable cause.”
Far too often, Simpson says, there was reason to be concerned: “From a modern perspective, there were just things that you simply could not accept were happening in a workplace.” While he was grateful to work for an institution that was responsible for righting those wrongs, he couldn’t help but think that businesses could avoid many of the pitfalls he came across if they had legal help in-house that could address issues before they were allowed to metastasize into a larger problem.
“The idea of training and prevention was an ever-present part of so many of those cases,” Simpson says. “Many times, people just didn’t know the law and needed someone to help reframe the legal landscape with a wider emphasis on compliance and enforcement.”
Simpson would spend the next fourteen years doing just that on behalf of GE. He’d be promoted repeatedly, taking on an array of increasing responsibilities during the various permutations of the business and eventually handling all aspects of global labor and employment matters for the company’s iconic lighting division. It would be easy to think that a company of GE’s size and 128-year history would be fairly stagnant, Simpson says, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth: “A business like GE is so dynamic. They’re always expanding and contracting here and there. For an in-house lawyer, it’s a phenomenal opportunity to get your hands on all sorts of different things.”
The senior counsel’s entrepreneurial spirit would be called on yet again when GE elected to spin off GE Current, a Daintree company, into its own entity in 2019. As a result, a world-class legal department that had been refined over decades was to be partially transplanted and forced to grow on its own.
“We’re talking about transitioning from a three hundred thousand-person global conglomerate to a small fraction of that number spread across the planet,” Simpson says. “The legal team had to retrofit itself to both address the fact that there weren’t that many of us and also make sure that we got the critical practice areas up and running immediately.”
The divested legal team took account of their respective practice areas, brought in outside counsel help to fill gaps, and adjusted as the business leaned into certain products or regions more heavily than others. “This might be a bit cavalier,” Simpson says, “but I think every lawyer should be involved in a transaction, whether they are stepping out to help create the infrastructure of a new business or are on the other side of it.”
Simpson attributes much of Current’s success in standing on its own to an important element forged through once being a part of GE. “Resiliency is such a strong part of the General Electric company,” he says. “When you go through a divestiture, you really do find out who your resilient people are, and Current is definitely stocked full of them.”
Bobby Simpson remains active outside the office: he served on the Kentucky State Bar Association Board of Governors, has served on committees of the American Bar Association, and is active in a variety of civic organizations. He also takes on pro bono cases for clients unable to pay for adequate representation. “I don’t get to do that as much as I’d like,” Simpson says. “But I like to help out as much as I can.”
“It was a pleasure working with Bobby on a complex matter involving construction-related issues. Though outside his normal area of practice, Bobby was thoughtful, challenging, and quickly grasped the issues, all with the utmost professionalism.”
—Gregory R. Faulkner, Partner