For Millie Ronnlund, it was never a question of if she would become an attorney. Instead, the question was when. “I always wanted to be a lawyer,” Ronnlund says. “For as long as I can remember, that’s what I wanted to do.”
Ronnlund charted a course early on to follow in the footsteps of her mother, who also practiced law. Even so, Ronnlund may not have anticipated ending up at Southern Nuclear, the nuclear power plant operator where she now serves as general counsel. But her unwavering commitment to the company, to its clients, and to the surrounding community leaves no doubt that Ronnlund has found her niche.
She began her foray into energy law shortly after graduating from the University of Alabama School of Law in 2008. Ronnlund started practicing at Birmingham-based law firm Balch & Bingham, where she spent nine years building up her legal expertise. Her exposure to and exploration of different areas of energy law during that time allowed her to hone in on nuclear regulatory law as a particularly complex and compelling subset of the field. “It was an interesting time in general for nuclear,” she says. “A lot of things were happening, and I really enjoyed how layered and unique the practice was.”
Aside from a specialization in nuclear regulatory law, Ronnlund came away from her law firm experience with a deeper understanding of the service aspect of the legal industry. “I learned to put my clients first and to think through how I was supporting them. Gaining that perspective on being a lawyer has really helped me,” she says.
“The foundation of being a good legal counselor is trust. Trust yields relationships where you’re in a position to advise people earlier on in the decision-making process.”
Ronnlund brought that perspective with her to Southern Nuclear when she joined the company in early 2018. As general counsel, she advises departments and functions across the company, weighing in on everything from nuclear regulatory issues to compliance to employment law. “My responsibilities span pretty much all areas of the law that Southern Nuclear touches,” she explains. “I identify where we need legal support and then get the right expertise into those areas.”
As she did at Balch & Bingham, Ronnlund prioritizes her clients by learning from experienced colleagues inside and outside Southern Nuclear. She builds strong relationships with company leadership as well as with external parties by listening to their concerns, understanding their goals, and striving to help them achieve those goals while minimizing risk.
“The foundation of being a good legal counselor is trust,” Ronnlund explains. “Trust yields relationships where you’re in a position to advise people earlier on in the decision-making process. That’s where you can really add value as a counselor, but you don’t get there unless you first take the time to build that trust doing the little things day in and day out.”
Nuclear is a clean-air source that can produce large amounts of electricity around the clock, and in Alabama, Southern Nuclear plays an important role by producing over half of the state’s carbon-free electricity. However, Ronnlund’s dedication to the community extends far beyond maintaining the power grid.
“Our entire company believes in being bigger than the bottom line,” she says. That means not only personally giving back to important causes and organizations, but also fostering a culture within Southern Nuclear that encourages others to do the same. “Over time, the web of people who are doing good things builds and builds,” Ronnlund adds. “And that’s a way for us to have a real impact on the communities where we live and serve.”
“Our entire company believes in being bigger than the bottom line.”
Ronnlund herself is contributing to the community through her work with First Light, an emergency shelter for women with children that got its start in the basement of a local church. “It’s such a great story of people in the community seeing a need and finding a way to satisfy it,” says Ronnlund, who has volunteered through the organization’s program for young professionals. “Everything that First Light does is so personal to and respectful of their guests.”
On top of her community endeavors, Ronnlund seeks to make a positive difference on her team at Southern Nuclear. She is proud to say that her team members have grown in their roles and in their careers over the course of her tenure. “Developing our people is a huge part of our future as a company,” she says. “When you get into more senior leadership roles, that has to become part of your focus. I love my legal work, but it’s really about the people for me.”
Ronnlund plans to keep her team––and the rest of the Southern Nuclear and Birmingham communities––front and center moving forward. She will continue to rely on her relationships to guide the company as it emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic and as the nuclear energy industry as a whole sets its sights on the future. Although she may not know exactly what that future will hold, she is more than ready to play a part in it.
“This is such a pivotal time for us. As I look to the next five, ten, twenty years for myself and the company and the industry––it’s hard to predict, but I do think that great things are happening at Southern Nuclear and at Southern Company,” Ronnlund says. “I’m really excited to support the company as it navigates those transitions.”