Bradley Gayton, General counsel, Ford Motor Company

A distinct lack of diversity at the upper levels of private practice led Bradley Gayton in-house straight from college. He shares his experience of coming into the top job at Ford as a life-long employee.

I have spent my entire career here at Ford, and it’s a special story that I’m really proud of.

I grew up in Syracuse, New York, and I went to undergraduate law school in Buffalo. My wife was a year behind me in law school. We looked at law firms in Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse – it’s a beautiful part of the country and we really had a desire to stay there. But as you scanned the major law firms at the time, I don’t believe there were any black partners, there were very few women, and I couldn’t identify any gay or lesbian partners. We therefore concluded it was not likely that I would be successful in any of these firms if others that looked like me had failed to achieve success. So I didn’t even look for a job in the area where I grew up and wanted to live. But we did see a diversity of lawyers achieving success in places like New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. And so that’s where we decided that I would look for a job.

It only happened to be that Ford was at a Black Law Students Association job fair, and I was intrigued by the company and in-house practice. Up until that point I had really only thought about going to a law firm.

After my second year at law school, I clerked at Ford for the summer, and when I went back to law school in my third year, I was given an offer of full-time employment, contingent on finishing law school and passing the bar. I vividly remember taking the bar exam on the Wednesday and Thursday, taking the weekend off and starting work the following Monday.

The thing that attracted me to the idea of being in-house at Ford was that it was the size of a good law firm. Today, globally, there are 620 in the legal office, but at that time it was significantly larger. Ford’s legal department handled its work predominantly in-house, and the idea of being able to see the issues from inception to conclusion and then living with the business consequences is what intrigued me, as opposed to working on discrete issues – where you may not understand the business imperative.

The way I’d describe the company and the way the legal office is run, is that it’s as close as I’m ever going to get to an entrepreneurial experience inside a company. The company has always been very innovative and very open to new ideas and new thoughts, and there has always been a keen focus on talent development. The intellectual challenges here are just so rich, I also had the opportunity to take on new assignments every three or four years within the legal office, and I have continued learning and growing – so I’ve stayed.

Being the assistant general counsel was helpful in taking on the general counsel role, in part because I was also the corporate secretary. So I wasn’t getting to know the board for the first time when I became general counsel – I understood the governance requirements and the CEO and board responsibilities at that level, so that bit of the transition was quite natural.

Having grown up here, the existing relationships that I had changed when I became general counsel. I sat on the operating committee of the office of the general counsel with my peers, all of whom were very talented and any one of them could reasonably have expected that they would be GC. So part of this job on day one was re-recruiting my peers, and acknowledging just what incredible lawyers and leaders they are, and reaffirming that all the fantastic work we had done as a leadership team was going to continue.

And then relationships with the rest of the c-suite were a little different. As corporate secretary, you’re helping to facilitate the needs of the c-suite, and so moving to become their peer was a great opportunity to interview them about their perceptions of the office. I tried to take on what I perceived to be misperceptions about the risk appetite of the office, and asked the question, ‘How have your business imperatives been constrained by the legal advice you have received?’ My objective was to understand the real barriers they’re dealing with as they’re trying to advance their business objectives, and what are the barriers that are perceived which we could eliminate.

I’m fiercely competitive and so are our lawyers, and innovation is a big part of that.

When I found out about getting the GC job, there were three things I did: I told my wife over lunch that day, I started re-recruiting my peers, and then I took time to sit down and come up with a transition plan. I had the privilege of having two and a half months where I had overlap with David Leitch, our former general counsel, and in that period of time I focused on developing external relationships. I’d done a fairly good job of establishing networks as I moved up, but that peer group isn’t all moving up to general counsel at the same time. The general counsel role is so unique that it is just so helpful to have other GCs to call on, because there isn’t anybody on your team who’s experiencing the same thing that you’re experiencing. That network of GCs is just so important to be able to tap into to bounce ideas around some of the challenges you are facing.

I also spent time getting ‘boot camps’ by going to different law firms, based on their expertise, to go deep in areas of the law where I hadn’t practiced before. I also started to spend time with senior folks at law firms so that I could develop a crisis management plan. My instinct was that I needed to find a good set of lawyers that could really help me if I had a crisis – lawyers that are battle-tested and have been through crisis before, so that a team would be already in place should the need arise.

I rise at 4:30am every day thinking, ‘How am I going to beat my competition?’ I’m fiercely competitive and so are our lawyers, and innovation is a big part of that. I think of it in three phases – now, near and far. I draw a circle for ‘now’, I draw a bigger circle around it and I call that ‘near’, and I draw an even bigger circle around ‘near’ and I call it ‘far’. I obviously have to spend time in all three areas, but where my most significant value can come from is thinking about the ‘far’, because if we can anticipate both where the law is going and where the business is going, we can identify solutions that are out in the far and then try to bend them back to today. If I can reach out toward the future in how I’m thinking and bring those solutions back to today, the curve that comes back is my competitive advantage – that’s how we can contribute to beating the competition.

What that practically means is that in the now, I am using firms that are using AI for e-discovery. But as I think about the far, we also have a team of people thinking about how artificial intelligence can actually be used to write patent applications. We’re in the process of exploration about what that could look like, and there’s a number of tech firms who are experimenting in this space, so we spend time with them, considering issues like, do we do we enter into things like a joint development or joint venture agreement with them to more fully explore it together?

We are also considering artificial intelligence solutions in the contracts space – not just in terms of writing basic agreements, but is there a way to use AI to really help evaluate the aggregate risk that we have in our contracts portfolio, and is there a way to help people make good choices about the trade offs they’re making when they’re negotiating contacts? Which vendor to go with, what jurisdiction is going to govern, indemnity provisions – there’s all kind of trade offs people make when they’re negotiating contracts, but can AI help optimize results for us relative to our total portfolio of contracts?

In the future, I do think that the way we work will be very different. Just imagine a technology-enabled practice that has more virtual reality to it. It’s not that we’ll be interacting with holograms necessarily, but it could be that we shorten the distances between each other globally. Why isn’t there the technology to support better video interface so that it feels as if people are appearing in the chair across from me so that we can have a much more human interaction than say, the telephone or low-definition video? I think that will help in relationships with law firms, but I also see it being really beneficial in courtrooms as well – in interactions with witnesses and judges. I see ultimately advances there where the level of pro bono work we’re all doing to provide people with access to justice will be technology-enabled, and will be able to help more people to get access to justice.