Commercial awareness: Maureen Ryan

Alumna Maureen Ryan decided to move in-house with Houston-based utilities company AEI*. Having served as Executive Vice President, General Counsel and Chief Compliance Officer for ten years, she reflects on her dual role as legal counsel and business adviser.

I grew up in Ireland, in an educational system that does not have undergraduate schools. Instead, we were expected to select our graduate studies right after high school. Being so young, it was some time before my decision to study law took shape as a career path. But after a few years in private practice, I knew I wanted to be a commercial lawyer and a business person.

This combination of roles is exactly what attracted me to working in-house. I wanted to be integrated into the company and play a role in commercial decisions. I liked the international aspect of AEI – learning about a global business and traveling to places I wouldn’t typically go to on holiday. And I’m very glad to have been given opportunities in my private practice to work across several corporate disciplines, including M&A, private equity, securities, banking/finance and insurance. It was excellent preparation for in-house life because the spectrum of my daily work was extraordinarily broad.

Commercial awareness is the single most important skill for a lawyer in private practice, and that requirement is amplified by about 100 percent when you move in-house. As a legal adviser, you are there to make a commercial goal happen and be solutions-oriented. It is important to remember that your true role is not to point out the problem and talk about every issue of law, but rather to find ways to solve the problem.

Some people go in-house because they desire a more regular nine-to-five job without huge amounts of stress. Other in-house jobs are the complete opposite – they give you the chance to work in the trenches on large, complicated transactions, with the added challenge of managing multiple other matters relating to the ongoing business of the company. My job was definitely on that end of the spectrum, so I’ve reaped the benefits of developing good organizational skills.

Confidence is critical, but it’s also very important to know what you don’t know. No one wants to show weakness, but it’s better to ask for help than to forge ahead unprepared. Not only will you make mistakes but you will lose respect. Get to know people who can help, and then go to them when you are unsure. There’s nothing weak about that.

As a business leader, I have learned the importance of connecting with others and taking an interest in their lives. I’ve seen what a huge difference it can make to just stop by and ask, “How’s your day?”

I would urge my younger self to remember that all problems can be solved. When you’re young and something goes wrong, it feels like the end of the world. But really, all you have to do is sit down and think about how to fix it. Keep calm. There’s always going to be a solution, and nothing is ever as bad as it seems.

*Since publication, Maureen has taken a new position as general counsel of Atlas Renewable Energy.