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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

5 Questions for a Practitioner: Sharon Schawbel '01, Counsel, Staples, Inc.

Prior to attending law school, Sharon Schawbel received a Bachelor of Science in Management from the Tulane University Freeman School of Business in New Orleans, Louisiana and subsequently worked for five years in the field of Event Planning.  After graduating from  New England Law | Boston, Sharon became a litigation associate at a small law firm in Framingham, Massachusetts, concentrating her practice in civil litigation and litigation defense.  After nearly four years in the litigation arena, Sharon accepted an in-house counsel position with RNK Communications (a telecommunications service provider) where she handled a variety of legal and regulatory matters for the company.  Sharon joined Staples in April of 2009 and in the position of Counsel supports both Merchandising and the Staples Brands Group, advising these business units on a variety of legal issues relating to the procurement of OEM (original equipment manufacturer) product for retail stores, as well as the creation, sourcing, production, importation and marketing of Staples' own-brand product line. Sharon is also a member of the Legal Department’s Commercial Compliance Team, which identifies, tracks and informs business units of proposed and passed legislation impacting their functions.

1. How did you get started working as an in-house attorney?
My first few years after law school were spent working for a small litigation firm doing mainly insurance defense work.  That immersion in litigation, although by no means my practice area of choice, gave me a very solid legal background and the ability to truly understand how the legal process and cases work.  When I came upon an opportunity to move in-house, it was that litigation background that ended up sealing the deal for me.  The company I ended up going to was interested in adding someone to its legal team with litigation expertise, so it ended up being a great fit. After three and a half years in that position, I’d gained enough experience and insight into providing legal advice as a company employee to be well prepared for my current position at Staples.

2. What is a typical day like for you?
Working in-house you get to really focus on the work of just one client – your company.  In my case, because I work for such a large company, that gets drilled down even further.  My clients within the company are two business units.  One is the own brand product group responsible for creating, sourcing, manufacturing and marketing the company’s private label products.  The other is the retail merchandising group, which is responsible for choosing the assortment of products in our retail stores and making sure they actually get on the shelves.  The legal work is extremely interesting, and there’s never a dull moment.  On a very regular basis I encounter projects, issues and challenges that are somehow different than those dealt with previously, often requiring creative thinking to resolve them in a manner that is both legally acceptable and beneficial for the business.  My work touches on product creation, including intellectual property issues, negotiating contracts with product vendors and foreign manufacturers, international trade issues (importing/customs) and a lot of advising on consumer product laws, regulations and issues to ensure that the product content, composition, packaging, claims and promotions comply with all applicable laws.

3. Were there any particular law school or post-graduate experiences that especially prepared you for this career? 
The courses I chose in law school were mainly geared toward the bar exam.  I’d take a class here and there on a subject of interest, but was very focused on being as prepared as possible for the bar exam.  I figured without that I was not going to get too far!  Generally though, I’ve found that every experience teaches you something, so any legal work you do and exposure you get is valuable.  For me, I can really just point to my litigation background, as it provided a solid legal foundation and understanding that I was able to build and expand on, transitioning into the role I have today.

4. Are there certain personality traits candidates should have in order to do well as an in-house counsel?
When you work in-house, and for a large global company especially, you’re going to have to deal with different types of people at all different levels of the organization - many who may have little knowledge of legal issues. There might be college interns working for your client for a semester and just learning the ropes and then there are the Vice Presidents, Senior Vice Presidents and higher who you may need to fill in on exactly why the really great endeavor they’re so excited about could pose great risk to the company.  The ability to think things through, be diplomatic, understanding, build rapport and to simplify and explain complex concepts will serve you well if you practice in-house.  Come to think of it, I imagine those traits will serve you well in almost any position – life, career or otherwise!

5. What advice do you have for law students and graduates interested in pursuing in-house counsel positions? 
I think being realistic is probably most important – which does NOT mean being pessimistic!  The reality is that in-house positions are typically filled by lawyers with several years of experience and oftentimes “big firm” experience.  That is not always the case though, as I can attest!  So once you have established your solid legal foundation, I think looking at smaller companies who have in-house legal positions is the best place to start.  At a small company, you’ll be exposed to a variety of practice areas (promotions, advertising, HR, employment, regulatory, contracts, negotiation, intellectual property), and these smaller companies will likely be more flexible on the experience level required.  Note that there are not usually a lot of these positions, as small companies tend to have very small legal departments, but if you’re persistent and keep your goal in sight, the right opportunity will come along. In the meantime, you are gaining more and more experience that will make you invaluable to the company that plucks you up in the future!