For the first time in her in-house career, Kelly Herrera isn’t providing legal advice. As of September 1, 2021, the former senior litigation counsel at leading independent oil and natural gas exploration and production company ConocoPhillips stepped into a more forward-facing role at the organization as its newly minted director of public policy.
Even though she is breaking new ground, Herrera is ready to leverage her existing expertise to find success outside the legal department. “I may not be practicing law currently, but all the analytical and problem-solving skills that I’ve worked on as a lawyer do get to come with me,” she says. “Like a good warranty, my skills are fully transferable.”
“Kelly is the ultimate teammate. She participates directly in the process and collaborates with her hired outside team to find a practical solution,” says Gray Reed Partner Darin Brooks. “These skills will transfer well to Kelly’s new role.”
As she looks to her future at ConocoPhillips, Herrera takes the time to reflect on the trajectory that brought her to this point. From her various legal roles to the six-month stint in Canada that opened her eyes to opportunities outside litigation, her career has grown immeasurably since she joined the company back in 2012. She hopes to continue that path of development—which she considers all the more valuable for being nontraditional—into her tenure as director of public policy and beyond.
Herrera’s journey within ConocoPhillips began at a pivotal moment in the company’s history. Its downstream business had just spun off as Phillips 66, opening the door for the upstream business to become leaner and more independent as Herrera was coming on board as counsel of litigation and claims. Her adept handling of landowner claims, personal injury incidents, maritime issues, emergency response, and a variety of other matters resulted in a promotion to senior counsel, a role in which she took on high-profile arbitrations both domestically and internationally.
“Like a good warranty, my skills are fully transferable.”
“Eventually, I ended up in a hybrid role, managing both litigation and arbitration for the company,” she says. “I was never bored because there were new challenges every day around many different issues and questions of law.”
Herrera had just begun overseeing the legal hold order and e-discovery processes when she learned of the director of public policy position. The two- to four-year role immediately appealed to her, especially because she had already made a brief foray out of the litigation department.
“In 2020, I took a Canadian transactional role. The company needed somebody to fill in during a six-month maternity leave, so they asked for one of the lawyers from the US to volunteer to cover it,” she elaborates. “I was ready to expand my experience beyond litigation, and I had fun learning something new and meeting new people within the organization.”
Whereas the transactional role allowed Herrera to continue performing her regular legal duties, her current role has required her to leave those duties behind. “This new role is a bigger leap and a bigger risk in that I’m not giving legal advice to the company,” she confirms. “Instead, I’m looking at risks and exposure for events that may come to pass in the future, and I’m supporting our external advocacy and internal engagement around ESG, energy transition, sustainable development, and other emerging issues.”
Herrera plans to apply her prior experience analyzing risk and bringing internal stakeholders into alignment toward the task of developing ConocoPhillips’ strategic positions in the public policy sphere. She imagines that her demonstrated ability to get up to speed quickly on unfamiliar substantive issues will come in handy as well.
“In the context of a dispute, you’re required not only to get up to speed on those issues but also to become the expert and the advocate related to them. I think that’s a lot of what I’ll be doing here too––different issues, but the same concept,” she says.
“My goal is to look back a year from now and be amazed by how far I’ve come.”
For all the similarities between her past and current roles, Herrera knows that she will encounter even more differences. However, she also knows that those differences will strengthen her knowledge base––one of the reasons for which she encourages other attorneys to explore nontraditional career options.
“Whether you take a business role or something in human resources, government affairs, or business development, you’re always going to come away from it with an additional viewpoint,” she says. “This role is a win-win because I’m going to be a better lawyer for having worked on the issues most pressing to our company and our industry, but if I stay or move on to another business role, I’ll have all these new skills to carry with me.”
Furthermore, Herrera views taking a role outside the legal department as a chance to network with colleagues elsewhere in the company. That chance is even more accessible given how open ConocoPhillips is to attorneys and other employees exploring alternative paths in general. Although Herrera is one of only a few attorneys to transition out of legal, ConocoPhillips employs individuals with law degrees in areas including government affairs, operations, and human resources, among others.
“ConocoPhillips has been doing so much in recent years to offer these kinds of cross-functional opportunities,” she says. “As another example, nonlawyer subject-matter experts have been assigned to work in the legal department to help the lawyers do a better job synergizing with the business needs when structuring deals or vendor contracts.”
Just as she believes in the value of a cross-functional career, Herrera believes in a type of success that doesn’t necessarily resemble traditional top-tier legal roles. To achieve such success, she remains receptive to all experiences from which it may be possible to grow.
“I’ve always looked for and always taken every opportunity to know ConocoPhillips as a business—to go to the drill site, to go to the well site, to board an oil tanker ship. Every time that I’ve done that, I’ve grown my capabilities,” Herrera says. “I definitely have a steep learning curve ahead of me as I come into this new role, but that’s exciting. My goal is to look back a year from now and be amazed by how far I’ve come.”