Michael Patrick spent most of his childhood going back and forth between the US and the UK, with family on both sides of the Atlantic. While Patrick went to college and law school in the UK, he’d eventually choose the US as his permanent home.
After completing his studies in the UK, Patrick worked in London for Farrer & Co, a British law firm headquartered in that city. The firm was founded in 1701 and throughout its three-hundred-year history has worked with many high-profile clients, including the British Royal family—in fact, it continues to act for the current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
During his time at the firm, Patrick started his career working for the British media: specifically for clients such as the Economist and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers in the UK, the Sun and News of the World. “The work was really at the cutting edge of the developing laws of privacy and data protection in the UK,” Patrick says. Over time, however, Patrick and the firm switched their focus away from acting for the media toward acting for the firm’s high-profile individuals and organizations, which range from public companies to individuals and businesspeople, in order to defend their reputations both online and with the traditional media.
“In the meantime, I still had my green card and I’d always had one eye on coming to work in the States,” Patrick says. “I did my New York Bar exams in 2008, and I was admitted while my career continued to progress in London—I ultimately became a partner at Farrer & Co but was always interested in going in-house to work for a public company, whether in the States or the UK.”
Prior to becoming a partner at Farrer & Co, Patrick had taken a sabbatical in the States. He worked for UniFirst Corporation, a uniform rental company based in Wilmington, Massachusetts, that manufactures, sells, and rents uniforms and protective clothing to customers throughout North America and Europe.
During his time working at UniFirst, Patrick worked closely with Steven Sintros, the then-CFO who is now the CEO of the company. “I’ve known Steve for a number of years and had enjoyed working with him previously. When he became CEO a few years back, he decided that he wanted to build out a corporate legal function; we got into a conversation about it and he thought I would be a good person for that,” Patrick reflects.
Patrick has been dedicating himself to that endeavor ever since. English-qualified lawyers can be admitted to practice in two states—New York and California—and Patrick didn’t find the switch to US law particularly difficult. “In reality, the biggest transition has been going from being a partner in a law firm, surrounded by other lawyers, to working in-house at a company which hadn’t previously had an in-house legal department,” he explains.
For decades, UniFirst had been primarily relying on outside counsel for their legal needs, so Patrick is now tasked with building the in-house legal department from the ground up. To add to the challenge, UniFirst is made up of more than 250 locations all over the United States, Canada, and Europe that have traditionally operated fairly autonomously. Patrick has had to design a strategy that encourages the various locations to direct their legal needs through the new department without overwhelming him and his team.
“When I first started, I remember my CEO saying, ‘Be careful about stretching yourself too thin, because you will suddenly find that you are bombarded with everything from minor queries to big issues,’” Patrick says. “It’s a matter of putting some structure around it. It’s still a work in progress, but we are starting to help people understand where they need legal review, where they perhaps should be using external law firms, or where they should be seeking in-house support.”
The legal department at UniFirst is still growing. They still use outside counsel and have strong relationships with their corporate counsel in Boston, Goodwin Procter, as well as other firms across the United States and Canada. “Our team at Goodwin really enjoys working with Mike,” says Scott Chase, partner at Goodwin Procter. “He has done a great job leading the internal legal function at UniFirst and is sharp and thoughtful about a wide range of issues. In addition, Mike values our advice and embraces our team at Goodwin as a true partner of UniFirst’s business.”
Patrick is particularly proud of the system the company has put in place to allow the company’s locations to access external counsel regionally with better visibility and reporting for the corporate team. “We now work with five firms of attorneys across the United States, instead of the two hundred firms when I first started,” Patrick explains. “The five firms we have chosen are knowledgeable about our business and the issues that are important to us.”
Throughout the process, Patrick has learned to be patient, since building out the legal function for a company of the size and magnitude of a public company such as UniFirst can’t happen overnight. “Our team will definitely have to grow in size over time. But certainly in these early days, we’re looking around and saying, ‘Where can we have the most impact?’ We can’t get bogged down in the minutiae. We try to position ourselves in those bigger conversations,” says Patrick. “It’s just evolution, not revolution.”