Amy Sandgrund-Fisher, General Counsel, Clinton Foundation

Amy Sandgrund-Fisher joined the Clinton Foundation in 2017, having previously specialized as an in-house employment lawyer. She details the transition from a specialist role to a generalist one, as well as life at the prominent charity founded by former US President, Bill Clinton.

I’ve been in-house at many different organizations, from a huge pharmaceutical company, to big public-facing non-profits, to a tech start-up. I’ve been lucky to work for a variety of excellent leaders and general counsel, and I believe that has given me a leg up in this role. That diversity of experience helped me learn the flexibility required for this role and how to handle the different types of issues I regularly tackle here.

I didn’t always want to work in-house – when I came out of law school I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do – but when I got married and started thinking about starting a family, I felt if I wanted to continue to be a lawyer and practice actively, in-house was the best route to go. I had watched women leave large firms to go in-house for years. I think in-house roles have always been perceived as better for women, because there are more development and promotional opportunities and a better work-life balance. In reality, my experience has been that being in-house is a better place for both women and men – and especially for working parents. Those development and promotion opportunities do tend to happen in a much more fluid way in-house.

Now, as general counsel, I see my role more than anything as a problem-solver. The biggest leap into this role required relying on my judgement and having the confidence to back myself. I had been an employment lawyer for almost 20 years before I became a general counsel, and it was tricky to take the confidence I had in my judgement as an employment lawyer, and transfer it to other legal areas. It only took a couple of days, though, to see that, even with my focus on employment law and my varied career, I’ve had exposure to all kinds of different legal and business matters.

To get that exposure, it was key to work at different organizations with different risk appetites, different business models and different types of leadership. Exposure to a diversity of legal problems and problem-solvers prepares you for a job like this. Given my own experience, my advice to attorneys looking to move into a GC role is to take chances and to not hesitate to try different organizations and different types of roles, and don’t get stuck. Being at one place for too long can make it hard to have the flexibility and exposure you need to take on a role like general counsel.

As for other challenges in coming to this role, one that stands out above the rest is giving legal advice to the former President of the United States for the first time! In terms of the wow factor, you can’t beat that.

Beyond that, moving from a fast-paced technology startup to the Foundation has been a challenging transition. Adjusting my pace of work and the way I think about risk assessment to a much more careful and deliberate approach took some adjustment. Even though every place has to manage reputational risk, managing it at the Clinton Foundation is different from most others.

Probably what prepared me best for that aspect of this role was working at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum is also a public-facing institution that gets an enormous amount of press, so the risk appetite there is pretty similar to that of the Foundation. The way in which the legal department at the Met thought about issues and how they might play out at the Museum was quite similar to the way that we think about issues here: first, of course, is what is the right thing to do? Then we start thinking about if we get media coverage, what would it look like, what would it mean for the roles of the principals, how would this reflect on board members? Those are questions that a tech startup or a big pharma company wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about in the same way.

One of my goals is to make sure those individuals see a path forward for their careers.

About 80% of the work I do at the Foundation is typical general counsel work, ranging from board governance matters to reviewing partnership agreements and large contracts, weighing in on compliance issues, advising on legal matters in foreign countries, working with outside auditors, HR-type issues, as well as being a member of the senior leadership team. The other 20% is special because we are the Clinton Foundation: I might be working with our communications team responding to media requests, or managing issues that are specific to our particular board leadership, the Presidential Center and work around the President’s legacy.

I’m proud to be working for the Foundation and to get to see the work it does up close and through the legal lens. Whether it’s helping small shareholder farmers in Africa, fishermen and women in South America, or folks struggling here in the US, all the programs that the Foundation runs are incredibly important, and getting to be a part of them is rewarding. Right after I started here, the massive hurricanes hit in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. The legal department supports the Foundation’s work in the Caribbean which includes helping to coordinate aid, working with Caribbean countries in their efforts toward alternative power solutions and distributing medical supplies to devastated areas. Even being a small part of that has been very, very gratifying.

The legal department at the Foundation is a very strong and diverse group, and many of the members of the department have been at the Foundation for quite a while. One of my goals is to make sure those individuals see a path forward for their careers. I’ve benefited from working for several strong leaders who took a keen interest in my development as a professional. I’m looking for ways to do the same for my colleagues at the Foundation. When you’re in a small team at a relatively flat organization, it can be hard to help individuals figure out how to develop themselves and what the right next career steps are. I think that being an excellent people manager is becoming a very important role for general counsel – really understanding who’s on your team, where they’re looking to go, and how you can help them get there. We all want to have high-performing teams that make important contributions to the organization. Getting there is not something they teach you in law school.

Luckily for me, I have a partner in the Foundation’s HR department. We have a strong mentoring program here and other learning opportunities to help employees at the Foundation develop career-wise. As general counsel, I view it as my job to make this in-house legal team a great place to work. That means making sure the work is interesting and challenging, that the team is diverse and that individuals can see a path forward for their careers, and that they can balance their work life with all the other things that they need and want to spend their time on.

The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the use of metrics. We haven’t used them a lot in the legal department at the Foundation (although of course the Foundation uses them to measure the work we do around the world), but it’s something I’m looking at more closely to make sure that the legal department is spending the most time on the work that’s most important to the Foundation. One thing I learned working in the start-up world is that understanding the work qualitatively, and quantitatively, even in the legal department, is part of the good management of the group.

No matter what your practice, getting international experience is incredibly important. I think it is great advice for all in-house attorneys these days to get international exposure. Whether it’s doing an international deal, working on setting up entities internationally, or working on an employment law issue or lawsuit internationally – anything that gets you out of your US jurisdiction to see how different it can be to practice in other places is a good start. Just knowing what questions to ask if you are going to be doing business in Japan, or Malawi or Colombia will put you a step ahead of colleagues without those experiences.