We all hope to age like Jeffrey Koppy.
His willingness to take chances hasn’t diminished over nearly thirty years in law. He left a prestigious partner position after nineteen years to go in-house at General Motors (GM), where he currently serves as assistant general counsel of complex litigation. Despite having an incredibly young family of his own, Koppy and his wife agreed to move their family to São Paulo, Brazil, for nearly four years to serve as regional general counsel for GM’s South American region.
“Sometimes in life you just have to go with your gut, take a chance, and see what’s out there,” Koppy explains. “See how you can grow your outlook and develop yourself, and put yourself into different or uncomfortable situations. It ultimately makes you a better lawyer and a better person.”
It’s an easy axiom to hold onto early in one’s career, but Koppy has managed to maintain his edge, his curiosity, and his desire to seek out new experiences, even if they may seem challenging at first. His journey is a reminder that living the best life often requires going out on a limb and embracing the unknown.
Straight out of law school, Koppy earned a prestigious clerkship with the Honorable Judge Suzanne Conlon, who served as United States District Judge of the Northern District of Illinois. According to the AGC, Conlon ran a tight ship and expected clerks to issue opinions at a rapid clip.
“At the time, she had the fastest docket in the district,” Koppy remembers. “She would issue her opinions about two weeks after the response brief came in. She did not permit any reply briefs, so we would have to get a draft opinion to her within about a week so that she could think on it and make sure it was in alignment with her views.”
Koppy estimates that he wrote somewhere between eighty to one hundred opinions in the year he was there. The experience was invaluable, and the young lawyer felt like he was working in tandem with the judge to issue a decision. “You really got the sense that you could have some influence in how to approach an issue,” he says. “It was incredibly gratifying coming right out of law school and getting that type of exposure to real-life trial work and litigation.”
Over the following two decades, Koppy would amass extensive litigation experience at the firm Jenner & Block. He loved his job, he loved living in Chicago, and he fully expected to finish out his career as a partner. But as his experience accrued, so did his curiosity.
“As I got more senior at the firm, I had more exposure to different corporate clients, and I became interested in the business side of things quite a bit,” he reflects. “When we talk about our in-house role, we have this partner/guardian model where we’re both a partner to the business and, at the same time, we need to be a guardian of the company’s resources and reputation. That really started to appeal to me.”
The genesis of Koppy’s coming to GM leads back to a faulty ignition switch. The automotive manufacturing company was forced to recall sixteen million vehicles in 2014 when it was discovered that an unintended ignition-switch rotation could inadvertently shut off power while the vehicle was being operated, preventing airbags from inflating. Jenner & Block was hired to perform an internal investigation to figure out just how long the problem had been known to the company.
Koppy spent weeks flying between Detroit and Chicago, often working to midnight. One of those nights, the lawyer was asked if he would give any consideration to coming in-house. “It had been such interesting work getting to know GM, and I thought it was an incredible organization,” Koppy explains. “It seemed like an exciting place to come and practice law. It would also be a chance to come home to the Detroit area where I grew up.”
In 2014, Koppy joined GM as executive director of its litigation group and subsequently rose through different roles, including a position that required a move abroad.
“Jeff is a remarkably creative thinker because of his varied experience,” says John Nadolenco, partner at Mayer Brown LLP. “He represented GM as outside counsel before going in-house. And within GM, he’s seen multiple aspects of GM—international and domestic. He’s got a true birds-eye perspective and is able to combine practical with legal advice.”
When Koppy was asked if he’d consider relocating to Brazil to oversee the South American region’s legal efforts in 2017, the smart move would have been on a hard no. He had three kids, all under the age of five, including a newborn. They had spent the last three years adjusting to life in a new city, and who would possibly consider moving an entire family unit to South America?
“I talked about it with my wife, and we decided to take that risk,” the AGC says. “A colleague once told me that opportunities never come without some sacrifice or risk. It’s proven so true, and I always keep that in the back of my mind when I’m considering anything, really.”
The Koppys learned Portuguese, the children attended international school, and the lawyer not only oversaw attorneys navigating the legal systems of Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, and several other countries, but also amassed incredible business experience that continues to inform his work today.
“I just soaked up everything that I could,” Koppy says. “It was a real education in the law, in the drivers of business, and in leadership.” The lawyer even learned to love a caipirinha cocktail from time to time.
Koppy’s innate thirst for knowledge and strong critical thinking skills have served him well throughout his legal career. “Jeff is special: he has all of the important qualities of a great lawyer, such as absolute integrity, judgment, knowledge of the law, and an incredible work ethic,” says Richard Godfrey, partner at Kirkland & Ellis LLP. “But what sets him apart is his ability to perceive, manage, mitigate, and when appropriate, take the risks necessary to achieve his client’s goals. It has been our privilege to work with him over the years.”
While Koppy and his family have been back stateside since 2021, he says making the choice to go to Brazil was one of the best decisions of his career. Whenever he talks to younger attorneys, he stresses the idea of what’s possible if one is willing to lean into a challenge.
“I experienced what has been the highlight of my professional career by being open to a new experience,” Koppy says. “It can be tough to leave a safe situation, but, for me, it’s just turned out so great. See what’s out there, take a chance, and see what happens.”
Passion for Pro Bono
Jeffrey Koppy is willing to take a chance, and he’s done so for people whose lives literally depend on it. The lawyer has been involved in significant pro bono work throughout his career, including helping individuals facing the death penalty get their sentences commuted to life in prison. In fact, he worked pro bono on four death penalty cases, even arguing in front of the Florida Supreme Court.
Koppy was also able to help reunite a family from Mexico after a father killed his wife and left his young children’s lives and their citizenship status in peril. Helping to secure visas and custody arrangements for the two children was a high point of Koppy’s career. “One of the girls texted me a couple of months ago to let me know she had become a US citizen and that they’re all doing well,” he says. “That feels pretty good.”