Kristi Garrett had to step off the career ladder in order to climb it. Long before she held her current role as vice president and associate general counsel of legal, regulatory, and compliance at QBE North America, she spent years digging into areas of the legal profession that she found less fulfilling. Along the way, she discovered the kind of role that demanded her best skills and offered her favorite challenges.
Today she provides legal support to QBE’s underwriting business units and is the portal through which those clients access legal expertise. “I get a unique opportunity to really understand the business and what we’re trying to do together,” Garrett explains. “The role itself is really rewarding, and building these relationships is a great way to spend my day.”
Headquartered in Sydney, Australia, QBE is a multinational insurance and reinsurance firm with operations in twenty-seven countries. The North American division consists of four units—including specialty, commercial, crops, and reinsurance—and reports annual gross written premiums over $7 billion. Garrett came to QBE in 2021 after years in private practice.
“QBE values not just what you do but how you do it,” Garrett says. “This allows for the freedom and confidence to capitalize on skills that I’m good at and enjoy: strategizing, issue spotting, and problem-solving.”
Because the insurance industry is highly regulated, the VP must keep abreast of ever-changing laws at multiple jurisdictional levels while also providing clear, actionable support to her non-lawyer colleagues. It’s important to optimize the flow of information; when people repeatedly come to her with the same questions, it’s time to ask why. Then, they can distribute that information from a central place. When business partners can help themselves, the whole enterprise moves more efficiently.
It’s also crucial to build trusting relationships throughout the organization. QBE’s leadership is flexible and engaged; Garrett finds that her opinion is valued as she helps others navigate business gray areas inside of legal strictures. “Earning small wins and having recurring conversations has been critical as it led to the business seeking out my expertise more and more. It’s not an example of one thing—it’s building that relationship, building trust, and having them make time for us,” she explains.
Garrett remembers assuming that an in-house role may be easier than a private practice one. That hasn’t held true for her. While the position gave her a more flexible work/life balance, the job itself is at least as difficult, if not more, in its own ways. “The most challenging thing is to take these legal questions and answers and distill them down for business. What can I say as a digestible piece of information that’s not going to dilute the law?” she says. “At a firm, I was primarily a lawyer for lawyers. Now, I’m a lawyer for business.”
She also didn’t expect to go in-house. Throughout law school, Garrett had internalized the private practice ladder model: summer associate, associate, partner. But several surprises steered her in a different direction and along the way she discovered it wasn’t a ladder at all, but, as they say, a jungle gym.
Her first position was at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae (later Dewey & LeBoeuf), which earned headlines as the largest law firm collapse in American history. After a few years, Garrett took an early career sabbatical to rethink her course. “I thought I was on a certain trajectory,” she recalls, “but I decided I needed to push pause on that path.” She moved to Budapest, Hungary, where she used her skills to support a legal nongovernmental organization. Her time away from Dewey made her question what she really wanted, and she realized she wasn’t quite done with law firm life.
Not long after returning to Dewey, Garrett faced a new challenge: becoming one of over a thousand lawyers to climb out of the Dewey bankruptcy wreckage in search of a new job. Her next role ultimately landed her in London, where she pivoted to an entirely new practice area. She didn’t enjoy fighting with outside counsel and was quickly losing interest in litigation. “I changed my practice entirely, eight years into my career. It felt like I went down to the bottom rung, but that was really just a move in my jungle gym,” she says. It was during this period that she got exposure to insurance regulatory work.
Her collective experiences helped her rediscover the legal work that empowered her. Reflecting on that sometimes-vertical and sometimes-lateral movement, she highlights a couple of lessons that continue to guide her work today. First, setbacks will happen, but resilience can be learned. In London, for example, Garrett had to adapt quickly to unfamiliar systems and norms, and she had four and a half successful years there.
Second, chaos can be scary, but it’s okay to be afraid, and time spent in that discomfort will reduce that discomfort in the future. Garrett, a mother of two, practices managing uncertainty throughout her daily life. “You can’t control everything, in your job or at home,” she adds. “Be okay with it being scary. Each time you face it, there’s a little bit less panic and anxiety. Uncertainty is to be expected.”
“Working with Kristi is always so enjoyable. She is smart, hardworking, thoughtful, and just a pleasure to work with. Most importantly, Kristi knows how to think outside the box to solve problems.”
–JillAllison Opell, Partner
Locke Lord LLP is honored to have worked with Kristi for many years on transactional and regulatory & compliance matters, and admire her creativity, leadership and drive.