We had the opportunity to sit down with Scott Woods, Charming Charlie’s Senior Vice President and General Counsel. As the first general counsel of this emerging fashion retail company, Scott is not only managing but developing the legal and risk management departments at Charming Charlie. Charming Charlie is a fashion retailer that sells women’s apparel and accessories, including jewelry, sunglasses, scarves, purses, wallets, clothes, shoes, and other items. Scott told us about the challenges he has faced and what tools he has used to conquer them.
Scott, first congratulations on your GC role at Charming Charlie. What do you love about being Charming Charlie’s GC?
For me, there’s never a dull moment. I really love being involved in a variety of fascinating issues every day, constantly switching gears between things like employment to trademarks to international and others, and it is always very interesting and challenging. I really need to be flexible because a lot of times my day does not go as I may have planned. I may have had a full day on my schedule, but something urgent may come up that is really significant for the business that I need to prioritize. I like being engaged in the combination of all the different aspects and it really makes the job worthwhile.
As GC of an expanding fashion and accessory retailer, what are some of the legal challenges you face in this industry?
Being the first GC at Charming Charlie has been challenging in itself. Here, we are building the legal infrastructure from the ground up during our company’s high growth curve and transformation. The weight of developing our legal department, while at the same time supplying the increasing day-to-day legal needs of our company, is always a delicate balance. Now is the time for us to get ahead of the game and make sure we properly assess the risks and establish the necessary processes while we continue to progress forward.
We are also expanding internationally, and with that comes the challenges of complying in many different jurisdictions. It takes utilizing outside counsel and figuring out what our opportunities and limitations are in each country. Even within the United States, it’s a challenge to work through different states’ requirements. Take California for instance, it’s like a country in and of itself and demands certain unique business and legal processes that we must assess and manage appropriately.
What are some of the keys to being a successful GC? What are some of the most important tips you would give to GC’s like yourself?
To be successful, you need to be more than reactionary, you must be proactive and strategic. I like to think of it as the links in a chain. As a first link, you need to establish strong relationships with the business leaders you work with. As a budding legal department, I find myself pushing back against people’s past experiences and perceptions that legal is here to “bust people’s chops” and to get them in trouble. That’s a stereotype I am working hard to dispel. A General Counsel is here as a partner to the business and not to act as a police state. The more they can view you as a partner who can help them with both legal and business issues, the more likely they will be to seek you out with any questions and issues so you can identify potential problem areas before things get out of control.
Once a strong connection is established, the next link in the chain is really about understanding what your clients want and need. With your strong relationship as a foundation, this will help them to open up about what kind of detail they want, how they like to communicate, etc., all of which will help you to really focus on better serving them and their business function. It’s all about listening to them and being able to determine what they are looking for and then spotting any legal issues that may arise in those conversations. It’s not about being an expert in every legal field, I am certainly not, but rather about being very good at identifying legal issues and then taking it to the next level by developing ways to mitigate risk.
And then you have to follow through by proactively taking action. This is the final link in the chain. You have to help them solve their issues and concerns in a practical way that makes sense to them. If you can work with them, without creating bottlenecks, and can be a problem solver for them, they can then trust you as a valuable business partner. Everything else will begin to fall into place after that.
In what ways has UpCounsel been able to help you face the challenges of being a general counsel at a growing company?
In some ways, the modern big law firm model is broken. They sometimes miss the mark by failing to provide real value to clients on the more routine day-to-day projects and needs. This is because they often demand hefty rates for work that should be billed at substantially lower prices. This is a slippery slope because it can lead to missed opportunities to handle important work for their clients.
What I love about UpCounsel is that they have provided big firm lawyers with big firm expertise, at a reasonable rate. They help me to fill important gaps where larger firms often can’t compete on pricing. I have a rate set for various types of work/attorneys, and I know what I am getting …. quality legal work. And it helps me breathe easier and helps me manage my own busy schedule and workload.
UpCounsel has helped me with a variety of issues, from general HR, to advertising issues, to trademarks, and contract reviews. I have used them for many different services and different aspects of our company and have come to trust several of the attorneys through its platform.
As GC, you have to balance a fine line between taking risks for the good of a growing company but at the same time mitigating risk as much as you can. How do you balance this and keep everyone happy, while also doing your job to the best of your ability?
My job is very much a partnership. Every legal decision comes down between me and the business leader that am I working with. Charming Charlie is very entrepreneurial and so sometimes we have a healthy risk appetite, within reasonable limits. The key for me is to communicate clearly when I work with the business and to help them fully understand the risks and weigh the costs of the legal consequences against the benefits of the business gain. And the legal risks and business gains are not just monetary but also take into account things like the reputation of our company. It takes clear communication to balance the risks against the wants and needs of our company.
One last question, how do you see the market for legal services evolving?
I do see it evolving. I think that a lot of people that are in-house and who are responsible for using outside counsel are increasingly more cost-sensitive in the current market and understand that there are many new alternatives that can provide great quality services at substantially better pricing. There is certainly a shift and its moving away from the “one stop shop” mentality, and instead using others, such as UpCounsel, to fill in the gaps and can still provide you great quality and in the timeframe that the business needs it.