In-house Q&A: GE's Bruce McAlister on arrogance, accidental emails and not-so-dedicated partners

BRUCE MCALISTER NEW-Article-201704180741

Bruce McAlister, general counsel of GE’s Global Growth Organization was a speaker at last year’s Corporate Counsel Forum Middle East. This year’s forum, which is chaired by Flash Entertainment GC Andrew Cooke, will take place on 11 May at The Ritz-Carlton, Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai.

Click here for details on how to register for the event. For sponsorship enquiries, email Natalie Hill at nhill@alm.com or call her on +44 (0)20 3868 7531     

Why did you become a lawyer? I grew up being a plane spotter and was in my element sitting at the end of any runway (no jokes about anoraks), but after having spent two hours in a Beagle Pup (a really, really small single-engine aircraft) I realised I wasn’t destined to be a pilot, and ran head first into law.

Who has been the biggest influence on your career? Without doubt, Stephen Henderson, who was the general counsel for commercial engines in GE Aviation, now retired. Stephen hired me into GE and taught me everything about how to be an in-house counsel who delivered on their transactions. But more importantly, he showed me how to be that business partner who went beyond law to look at the business priority; how to take control of all the constituent parts of a transaction and execute the strategy.

What’s your proudest professional moment? I spent a week in Dar El Salam, Tanzania, training their university’s final year law students with my good friends at GE and DLA Piper. The students attended lectures all day, from 8am-5pm, which showed an incredible appreciation and thirst for knowledge. It was humbling to be a part of their learning journey.

…and worst day on the job? Days prior to the closing of an acquisition, and following a ‘robust dialogue’ with tax advisers acting for the other side, I sent a rather disparaging email of the senior partner to some colleagues, only to realise that after sending the email, I had included the tax partner on it!

Aside from in your own company, which in-house lawyer do you most admire and why? Iain Simm, general counsel of DS Smith, who was previously at BBA Aviation. I negotiated against him in a complex disposition of a business located in northeast England. There was a barrage of issues in a highly competitive bidding process. Iain was pragmatic, always working to what was critical to his business as opposed to scoring points. His attitude enabled us to complete the disposition in record time. I’m a firm believer that you can always learn from your counterparts on the other side of the table.

What do you look for in lawyers in your in-house team? I am passionate about having a local legal team being co-located with our business leaders in all of the countries that we operate. Their regional qualifications and experience, together with local language ability, bring an element of speed – they are able to assess risks much quicker than a lawyer situated in a headquarters.

What do you look for in an external adviser? I look for an external adviser who is comfortable being able to operate in the grey. Nothing that hits my desk is either black or white. An external adviser who is able to help me navigate and quantify the risk, and take co-ownership of the issue to find the solution is a great advantage.

How is your panel set up? GE has a formal panel that operates predominantly in North America and Europe. The panel is reviewed regularly to ensure that we have right-sized the skills and capabilities of our outside legal providers in the most cost-effective manner. In emerging markets, where the legal environment is ever changing, we would initially go in with the creation of a best friends list as a pre-cursor to a formal panel. This enables us to stress test the local firms’ abilities, and at the same time create contacts in these markets.

What’s your strongest characteristic… and worst trait? I try to build trust and loyalty in all my business relations and transactions. I firmly believe that this ultimately expedites any transaction. As a worst trait, I tend to overanalyse issues and try to implement alternative strategies, instead of waiting for the current plan to evolve.

What advice would you give to a private practice lawyer starting his or her first in-house role? I was asked to join GE from private practice and had done very little research into the role of in-house counsel. Today, I spend quite bit of time stressing to any private practice lawyers interviewing with me that they need to do their homework by finding out where the legal team is positioned within the company, their role and how strategically the legal function is viewed. You want to continue doing the sophisticated, complex transactions. You don’t want to be viewed as a back-office function.

What’s the best part of your job? Seeing lawyers that I have brought into the organisation become true business partners, who are then promoted to executive level in the organisation, is very satisfying. I am also passionate about the Diverse Legal Fellows Programme that I implemented after coming to the Middle East in 2014. By investing in young professionals, who have exceptional qualifications and have grown up in Saudi, UAE and other parts of the region, we can ensure that we are making our profession sustainable in volatile and uncertain markets.

What most annoys you about the legal profession? The legal profession is still very hierarchical, which drives arrogance among senior partners and general counsel. There is not enough entrepreneurial creativity among senior lawyers, who are facing the new millennial workforce in an acutely digitised age.

What’s the most unusual/shocking comment you’ve ever had from a legal adviser? Working with a top tier global law firm on a transaction in the Middle East, I was astonished to be told by the partner on the transaction that he was going on holiday for two weeks, leaving his junior associate to close the transaction. I thought it best that we part company and had another firm acting for us at the negotiating table the next morning.

What’s your favourite item of clothing? My Fitbit has transformed my day within the office. It prods me on an hourly basis to move around. It just shows how desk-bound we are as a profession, although I do get looks from my colleagues as I’m pacing up and down the office floor.

What are your desert island discs? I subscribe to Spotify for my children, and end up listening to whatever is on my son’s favourite list. Funnily enough, anything I choose seems to get bumped off our family playlist.

And your favourite boxset? I don’t watch much TV at home, but I tend to binge-watch the latest series when I’m flying long haul, which is often. I have just finished watching Designated Survivor, which I would highly recommend. The main character has suffered more catastrophes in his first 100 days than any current leader, believe it or not!