Stacy Cozad, General Counsel, Spirit AeroSystems

Personal relationships have been crucial in forging the career path of Stacy Cozad. Now general counsel for Spirit AeroSystems, she shares her personal philosophy for managing an in-house legal department.

I think there are a lot of lawyers who have a vision of their career when they first start out, but I was not one of them. I didn’t have a plan to become a general counsel, for example. I simply had the good fortune of meeting the right people at the right time and being open to new challenges. My career path has been about the people that I’ve met who have been my advocates and promoters along the way.

I started my career clerking for a judge who is now the US Senate Majority Whip, John Cornyn. He was someone who really valued his staff’s views and insights, and I wanted to be a courtroom lawyer in front of judges who respected me like the judge I worked for did.

But as I said, my path has been about the people I’ve met along the way. It was for its people that I chose to go to Southwest Airlines to be head of litigation. Southwest is an airline that was founded by a lawyer (Herb Kelleher) who made it his mission to ‘democratize the skies’ in the US – to make it possible for everybody to be able to fly. I was fortunate to have been a part of that for over nine years.

The opportunity at Spirit AeroSystems arose, and again it was due to a prior relationship – somebody I worked for in the past recommended me for the job. Spirit was an opportunity to go from an airline to an air structures manufacturer, getting to be a part of a global business with operations in the UK, France and Malaysia, as well as multiple places in the US.

To come to the general counsel role was a big leap for me, and I was fortunate that in the past I had had a very diverse litigation practice that included, for example, corporate governance issues. Also, in private practice, I had worked as part of the defence team for CEO Kenneth Lay in the Enron litigation in the US, which was, of course, a huge changer of basic corporate governance tenets. At Southwest Airlines, I also got to do a lot of regulatory oversight, corporate investigations and the integration of another airline. All of those things were very helpful for prepping me for being GC, at least in terms of the legal role.

The best advice I could have given myself is that I don’t have to learn everything today.

But the biggest leap was the business, and going from an airline, which is essentially customer service, to aerospace and defence manufacturing. That was an enormous learning curve, and remains so. I read everything I could get my hands on before I got here about the industry. There were people within Spirit who I reached out to, to learn what we do and how we do it – for example, taking tours of our manufacturing facilities, walking through the plant floor to see what we make and talking to the people who make these aircraft structures, and also spending time digging in with our corporate controller to learn the very different financial and accounting aspects of a manufacturing business versus an airline.

At the time, the best advice I could have given myself is that I don’t have to learn everything today. In the first few months I was here, I felt that I needed to know everything right away and, in all of the work that I did trying to learn as much as I could, I neglected myself. Have a plan for all the learning that you need to do, but make sure you are making time to sleep. Taking the job meant moving my whole family to a new city. I have children, and I did not sufficiently take into account what that transition would be like for us on a personal level. So I think you have to learn that you don’t have to know it all on the first day. Have your plan and make sure you take care of yourself in the process.

The things that I find most rewarding really centre around people that I’ve had the privilege to lead who have gone on to do tremendous things in their careers or try new challenges. I’ve been most proud of the teams that I’ve put together and the smart people on those teams. On the flip side of that, the most challenging moments have been ‘people moments’ – learning how to adapt and work with people who don’t operate with the same core principles and values as I do. It’s really tough to stand on an island alone, but sometimes you have to do it. At Spirit, we’ve just begun the journey of shifting our culture and our values, so those most challenging moments are learning that not everybody yet has bought into those core values and principles, and having to learn how to influence people to get on board.

Fortunately, the single most valuable thing that contributed to my view of leadership was the leadership program that I went through at Southwest Airlines. I was actually the first lawyer to go through it, and it taught me the importance of having a core set of principles and values and instilling them in people across your business, so that everybody is operating from the same set of guidelines in making their business decisions. I think that’s no different from understanding your company’s risk appetite or strategy – if you don’t know what those things are, you don’t know the framework for the decisions that you need to make.

There are non-traditional legal service providers that you can couple with a law firm.

Since I’ve been here, I have expanded my leadership to our compliance team, I have taken on our global contracts team, and I will be taking on the information security team – the chief information security officer we’ve just hired will report to me. As you see the general counsel role expanding to really influence business strategy, I think it will also expand to have more leadership of some of these non-legal areas because of the interconnectedness of them. Most businesses will benefit from a general counsel who has some oversight and an intimate involvement with all those other foundational elements of the business.

There are other things throughout my career that helped prepare me for my job at Spirit. I had stepped into my role at Southwest Airlines at a time when e-discovery was just coming into effect, and so I was able to be pretty innovative in the leadership there in getting us to a sophisticated state in our litigation practice. Coming to Spirit, I would say I’m bringing innovation, but it’s not new things; all of the things that I did at Southwest I’m bringing here now. Spirit just hadn’t had the opportunity or the need to get current in the same way.

For example, I have started doing something that’s pretty common in our industry, but wasn’t common at Spirit, which is unbundling the legal services. We’re not hiring law firms for every aspect of a litigation matter or due diligence, for instance, because there are non-traditional legal service providers that you can couple with a law firm, which are a lot more cost-effective. We’re bringing in things like technology-assisted review and artificial intelligence, which started in e-discovery and now we’re expanding over into revamping our contracts management. If you can use tools like AI to help you gather more information about your state of compliance and contracts management, then you’re going to equip your lawyers to deliver much more efficient and practical legal advice.

I think this represents a broader trend. I’m surprised we still have as many very large law firms as we have. At Spirit, we do hire large multinational law firms, but I am personally a fan of smaller practices that I think deliver better value for the client, depending on the matter. There are times when you need a firm with a global presence, but I continue to believe that we’re going to see more boutique-style law firms that really understand their clients’ need for practical advice that furthers their business goal. And I really think we’re going to see more service providers in this area where we’ve unbundled various things. There are companies that are not law firms, but which have lawyers you can use on a project basis with your law firm partners on matters – sort of an ‘à la carte’ menu where you can piece together what you need. More law firms will, I hope, start to see the benefit of partnering with those non-traditional service providers.