Alumni Q&A

Michelle Leetham

Michelle Leetham

Chief Legal Officer
Rodan & Fields, LLC
Formerly of counsel in the San Francisco office of Ogletree Deakins (2010-2011)

When I reflect on how I landed in 2012 as General Counsel (GC) of Rodan & Fields, LLC (“R+F” or “Rodan + Fields”), a super-fast-growing, woman-owned skincare company founded by the doctors who created Proactiv, it often occurs to me that I have an unconventional background for this job. While I certainly had used skincare products and had purchased items from direct sellers (our distribution channel), my in-house legal background was in construction and energy—a far cry from R+F’s core business.

After graduating from Boalt Hall (now Berkeley Law), I spent six years in the employment and insurance coverage groups of dearly departed Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison. Next, I was in-house at Bechtel Corporation, the San Francisco–based global construction giant, first focusing on employment and later expanding to become head of the international litigation practice. When my job moved east to Maryland, I took a turn back to my outside counsel employment roots and joined the San Francisco office of Ogletree Deakins, a firm that had served Bechtel well over the years. From there, I headed back to energy and construction law as the Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer and Chief Litigation Counsel for First Solar.

You may wonder how this background could prepare me to be GC at a skincare company. Here’s my advice to those who are looking to find and succeed at a GC role:

  • Focus on What You’re Learning and Contributing
    It seems that many lawyers these days are title-focused. Perhaps this is driven by the social media culture, in which people proudly proclaim their achievements. To my colleagues and friends who fret about whether they are a GC, AGC, VP, etc., I routinely advise that they focus on what they are learning and how they are contributing to their organizations. For me, the biggest joy in being a lawyer is that I am constantly learning new things. And in the process, when I can help my company grow, avoid risk, or improve in some way, the joy is compounded. I do believe that if you focus on the work and how you are contributing to your organization, good things will happen in your career.
  • Volunteer and Broaden Your Horizons
    Raise your hand and offer your services. There have been so many times in my career when I did this and good things followed. When I was a law clerk at the California Supreme Court, I volunteered to write the dissent in Foley v. Interactive Data Corp. That dissent eventually became the majority opinion. After I joined Brobeck and the employment business slowed (in large measure due to Foley), I volunteered to work in the insurance coverage group, where I got great litigation experience and commercial knowledge. At Bechtel, I took on some small commercial litigation tasks in addition to my employment work. Those small tasks grew into a fascinating job managing international disputes.

    The broader you are, the more valuable you will be to a company that hires you. You need to be willing to get a bit uncomfortable at times, but mastering new areas will give you confidence to expand even further until you become the sort of generalist that most companies need to oversee their various legal issues.
  • Stay Connected and Contribute
    Connect with people in the legal and business community. The more people you know, the better. The CEO at Rodan + Fields who hired me often said that one important factor was how connected I was in the community. The key to building successful connections is to search for ways to contribute and help others. The more you give, the more you will receive. Even small gestures matter. If you meet someone who is taking a trip to Charlotte, you might send an email with a few restaurant suggestions.

    If you join an organization, find ways to add value. Offer to host a lunch at your office with a roundtable discussion on a meaty topic. Beware. Soon you may find yourself in a leadership role of the group, as I did when I became the first woman to be president of a group that focuses on international arbitration.
  • Understand and Enable the Business
    You must be viewed as a strong business partner. Spend the time needed to fully understand your company, the market in which it operates, and its competitors and business partners. Do your homework and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Showing a genuine interest in the business is always appreciated. When you give advice, have a deep understanding of its impact on the business and whether the advice can be realistically put into practice. I’m often surprised by the unrealistic and overly risk-averse advice that I get from outside counsel. Be prepared to allow the business to take reasonable risks and, of course, to explain the potential downsides.
  • Get Comfortable Speaking in Front of Groups
    Some lawyers are natural-born public speakers; most of us aren’t. But to develop the confidence necessary to be a GC, you must be able to command a room—whether it is a boardroom, conference room, or large auditorium. Joining Toastmasters or taking a course in public speaking can help even seasoned speakers. As tough as it may be to find the time, always practice what you plan to say. Too many people think they can wing it. I got great advice years ago when a moderator asked me and three other in-house lawyers on a panel to each give a five- to seven-minute introduction. He urged all of us to practice our remarks. I followed his advice, but it appeared the others did not. That one address led to further invitations to speak and other interesting opportunities for me.