Kristen Cunningham describes herself as a “roll up your sleeves” attorney who excels at building teams, creating, and enhancing processes, and solving problems through creativity and tenacity. Today, she counsels tax professionals and executive management at Ryan as vice president and deputy general counsel for her market-leading firm. It’s sophisticated, demanding, and fast-paced work—and Cunningham is up for the challenge. She anticipates the legal needs of her client and counsels and advises them without stifling their business objectives.
Cunningham literally left the family farm in rural Arkansas and moved to Dallas, where she started selling mutual funds with Fidelity. Why? “It seemed interesting,” she explains.
The move didn’t surprise Cunningham’s friends and family, who have come to know her as an ambitious professional with a penchant for lifelong learning. She obtained her broker’s license, trained new employees on FINRA, and stayed with Fidelity for five successful years.
Cunningham’s career pivoted when she considered leaving the brokerage business to pursue a media studies graduate program at TCU. But when a friend mentioned law school, she was intrigued. She sat for the LSAT, scored well, and began her law school career at the University of Houston Law School. Although Cunningham was on a new path, her experience at Fidelity wasn’t wasted.
“I wanted to do something completely different from Fidelity, but after I aced my first corporations course, I knew that the building blocks from my time at Fidelity made corporate law a natural choice,” she says. Today Cunningham specializes in securities, corporate, and M&A work thanks to her innate business acumen, sound practical judgment, and experience gained from her time at Fidelity.
Cunningham started her second career in law at the prestigious Dallas-based Jenkens & Gilchrist (n/k/a Hunton & Williams). Working in the corporate and securities group at the largest Texas-based firm gave her the unique opportunity to represent companies in their complex IPOs. Cunningham’s practice evolved into representing large publicly held hospitality REIT clients. Her clients’ businesses were completely disrupted by the tragedy of September 11th.
“I was home on maternity leave watching September 11th unfold with two weeks left until I went back to work,” she remembers. “Corporate law practice was like crickets chirping—quiet and not much activity following that monumental day. It was a scary time to return to a corporate and securities practice at big law.”
Soon after, a transition in-house propelled the rising star to her next opportunity. Cunningham moved to CellStar Corporation, where she led all securities and corporate governance matters for the wireless phone pioneer. The position provided Cunningham with another chance to grow when she mastered a new area of the law as CellStar became one of the first companies to comply with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which was a sea change in financial reporting and responsibilities for public companies. Cunningham was instrumental in establishing policies and procedures to comply with this sweeping new set of regulations.
Five years later, Cunningham made another series of moves. She joined the legal team at Dean Foods Company, an S&P 500 company, before jumping back to a practice with large law with Alston & Bird LLP, where she represented clients in banking, retail, and other sectors.
In 2019, Cunningham’s legal journey brought her to Ryan, where she’s responsible for overseeing the company’s active M&A practice and expanding its “best practices” corporate governance structure as it grows and evolves from a private founder-led company. She continues to look for new ways to leverage her experience and skills at Ryan.
“I’ve made a point to learn as much as possible in every position I’ve ever had,” she says. “Ryan is definitely the most entrepreneurial organization that I have worked for, and I have been able to advise my clients through understanding their business propositions and finding ways to help them succeed. It’s a unique balancing act of protecting your clients while at the same time nurturing the Ryan innovative and entrepreneurial spirit. I believe that my combined past experience in providing business-minded advice to my clients has allowed me to thrive within the Ryan culture.”
Ryan has been in business for more than 30 years. After joining the organization a little over two years ago, Cunningham introduced modern systems and processes to its legal department. She pitched a new approach to Ryan’s CEO to modernize the company’s process and procedures and won approval to implement a new equity management system and fortify her resources in order to upgrade and modernize her team.
Additionally, Cunningham is showing her strength in building and managing people. She makes it a priority to build trust and rapport with her team and with her internal clients. She is considered a “go-to” team member and a vital piece in Ryan’s high-performing legal department. In addition to the domestic legal team, Cunningham’s management reach extends to personnel in India and London.
What’s Cunningham’s secret to success? She takes the time to develop strong relationships with each person on her team, and she works tirelessly to maneuver around any roadblocks they encounter. “I like to check in with each team member once a week, even if it’s informal, and make sure I’m doing what I can for each member of my team to be successful,” she says. “We have a very collaborative team and we’re all rowing the same boat, and I make sure that each member of the legal team knows they can come to me for help and support.”
As Ryan grows and evolves, Cunningham is eyeing further optimization. She is continuing to build her legal team and is eyeing new systems to advance the department. Improving legal functionality is critical as Ryan’s legal team supports an already industry-leading company that intends to further distance itself from its competitors. Ryan’s leaders intend for the firm to capitalize on the firm’s success and use its abundant financial and human resources to accelerate growth and profitability as Ryan becomes a bigger and better version of itself.
“Kristen is a super intelligent, hard-working and effective deputy general counsel. She provides Bell Nunnally with the resources and teamwork to successfully close transactions and achieve Ryan’s objectives.”
–Larry Shosid, Partner