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It all started with Atticus Finch. It’s a name that pops up a lot when speaking with lawyers; the fictional attorney from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird has inspired more legal careers than could ever be fully tallied. Amie Nolan-Needham, assistant general counsel for General Motors, can be counted among that number, but in truth, her amazing grandmother deserves a fair share of the credit.
Nolan-Needham spent her summers in Oklahoma with her grandmother, a retired librarian who had obtained both an undergraduate and a master’s degree (a rare feat for a woman born in the early 1900s). They would visit the library and bypass the children’s books section every time.
“We would go straight to the classics,” the lawyer remembers. “Every night I would curl up in bed, and she would read to me for hours.” It’s where the future lawyer would encounter Atticus Finch, along with Tom Sawyer and Jane Eyre.
But Nolan-Needham developed more than a passion for the law: those reading sessions with her grandmother were also where a lifelong passion for social justice first took root. And even though Nolan-Needham has spent one career in corporate law, her commitment to and action on behalf of underrepresented minorities has been another career unto itself.
Going in-house wasn’t a path Nolan-Needham thought she’d ever take. “My early life, I was training to be a partner in a law firm,” the AGC says. “I really thought it was my calling.” She made partner at Thompson Coburn in 2009 and continued her career as a shareholder at Littler Mendelson. However, she ultimately came to an important realization.
“I do hear this from a lot of other in-house attorneys, but it’s so true,” Nolan-Needham says. “As an outside counsel, you’re really placed in a role that is most often a reactive one. The clients call you when there are problems. You never see how your work fits into a larger picture. That strategic picture and the broader relationship-building involved is always something I loved about practicing, and it was a craving I could finally give into.”
Nolan-Needham came to GM in 2019, six months before a pandemic that would fundamentally change her experience as both a leader and mother.
“The pandemic is horrible for so many reasons; there is so much personal loss that has occurred in [terms of] people losing family members and friends and more broadly a connection with each other,” she explains. “I have also tried to find the silver linings in such a stressful time.”
The mother of two says the last couple years have given her the chance to watch her son Noah grow up in a way she was simply unable to with her older son Eli. She says the broader GM team has leaned into the humanity of remote work, welcoming the oddities that come hand in hand with working from home, whether that’s a noisy pet or, as happened in her own interview with Modern Counsel, her children returning home from the beach.
But it hasn’t made work for a generally conservative profession any easier. “As a practitioner, it’s really been the Wild West,” Nolan-Needham says. “Lawyers love certainty and they love rules. The pandemic threw everything out the window.”
Thinking outside the box had to become the standard, especially when GM was asked to temporarily convert its car manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, into a ventilator manufacturing site for the federal government, churning out tens of thousands of life-saving ventilators in the process.
“It was like nothing we had ever seen before, and hopefully something we won’t have to see again,” the AGC says.
The exact opposite is true of the time Nolan-Needham spends outside the office. Some work has already been done on behalf of minorities and underrepresented populations, but the attorney is hoping to see those efforts and issues become a more prominent part of the national conversation.
Nolan-Needham has served on countless boards and charities, especially those advocating for the rights and representation of the LGBTQ+ community. She has helped the Victory Fund further its mission of helping elect LGBTQ+ candidates from school board seats to national office. While living in St. Louis, she worked with the Food Outreach organization, which provided meals and services to patients who were HIV positive.
On behalf of the St. Louis Urban League chapter, Nolan-Needham helped bring light to social issues, including the multitude of murders of African Americans by police, and with the Wyman Center, she helped provide long-term support for at-risk children throughout elementary school, college, and into their careers.
The AGC says she’s guided by the amazing example provided by Rabbi Susan Talve, the founder of the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis, who has an inextinguishable passion for social justice. “She talks about the holy chutzpah, and boy does she have it,” the AGC says, laughing.
But it takes one to know one, and there is no doubt that the fire inside Nolan-Needham that was lit by her grandmother and fed by her compassion for her community continues to rage on. Atticus Finch would be proud.
“Through bold and collaborative leadership, Amie achieves her goals unfailingly. The powerful and exponential impact resulting from the committed mentorship she provides so many others in pursuit of theirs is among her greatest accomplishments.”
–Kim Yates, Shareholder