Allison Hoffman of Intersection: It takes a strong GC to work with outsized personalities
Allison Hoffman has been a general counsel in small departments dealing with CEOs and investor with huge personalities. She’s had to work with Bruce Wasserstein, billionaire financier Media and domestic guru Martha Stewart. And now, once again, Hoffman is working with an outsized personality, Dan Doctoroff, now chairman of Intersection but who until not so long ago headed one of the world’s biggest news operations, Bloomberg News. Doctoroff’s new company and cause is Intersection, a company that is bringing free WIFI Internet to the masses via thousands of kiosks on city streets, transportation systems, and airports.
Hoffman helped Stewart sell her self-named company and didn’t want to stay on with the buyer, and fortuitously she got into her current role at Intersection. At her new company, she oversees a small legal team while also being charged with human resources and, as if that weren’t enough, the operations of the company. It’s all part of startup culture, although this one is growing fast into a big presence in U.S. public spaces. She spoke to our colleagues at MAG [an online magazine with most content in Italian] about being a lawyer who’s got a taste for business, and who likes to straddle the business-legal divide and not just to be the one who says “no” in meetings.
You have two jobs, the general counsel and the chief talent person?
Yes. Really, I’m the chief administrative officer. I oversee the facilities and the people department.
The things that I liked the best at Skadden was when we were working with the company closely and I got to understand how that company operated.
Are you the only lawyer?
I have two other lawyers. One has become our chief privacy officer. She focuses mainly on privacy and a lot of the technical agreements working with engineers. The other one focuses on our transit partnerships and helps me with the corporate type debt work.
You were at Martha Stewart, but moved to Intersection. Why?
I loved that job. I went to Martha Stewart with the understanding that I would help to restructure the company at some point. We had a very successful sale to Sequential Brands. And I decided I wasn’t going to stay once we sold the company.
At the same time, a friend of mine who I’d worked with at Skadden Arps had read about how Martha was being sold and he was friends with one of the executives here. They were looking for a general counsel and did he know anybody? And actually, he said, I have someone in mind. Allison’s company was being sold, and she might be in the market. They reached out to me and I was very intrigued by the possibility of working with Dan Doctoroff so I jumped on it, and it worked extremely well.
All of these in-house jobs were a huge change from Skadden, a huge megafirm. What did you do there?
I was an associate in the corporate finance department, although I worked on a lot of M&A transactions.
Did you ever think you’d work as an in-house lawyer when you were in law school, or did it just happen?
A little of both. I knew that I always loved business. And the things that I liked the best at Skadden was when we were working with the company closely and I got to understand how that company operated, what the business model was. That’s what we had to understand when we were taking the company public. So from that standpoint I always knew that I wanted to be close to the business. But I didn’t know that I wanted necessarily to do as an in-house lawyer. I had a great experience at Skadden, I’m not one of those people who complains about large law firms. But at that time in my life I was traveling all the time, and I had a great opportunity.
A lot of those I’ve spoken to is that they like working with nonlawyers in-house. And they say they’ve had to learn to speak to people who aren’t lawyers. Did you ever have that kind of transitional learning issues?
My transition was different. I never thought of myself as one of those lawyer’s lawyers. I’m much more practical about how I give my advice. So giving advice to nonlawyers was never an issue for me. What was a transition was, when you’re at a law firm you’re focused on one area. And even if you’re doing corporate work, doing IPOs, M&A, all sorts of corporate work, you’re still doing just corporate work. And what I found about in-house, is that you’re told you have to write a cease and desist letter, that’s something you never would have done in a law firm. It’s a simple thing, but I didn’t know how to write a litigation type letter to someone.
I really had to learn how to do just the day to day business part. And much of my job, for the last 20 years as a GC, is not reviewing contracts, it’s advice. It may be advising the CEO, it may be advising the board, sitting in a meeting weighing in on some strategic initiative, it’s a lot less of traditional law firm lawyering.
I’ve worked with notoriously big personalities, whether it’s Martha Stewart or Bruce Wasserstein or Dan Doctoroff, and they’re not as successful as they are by accident.
Do you still think of yourself as the grownup in the house?
Yes. But not just that. I’m willing to be the contrarian voice. That is something that is hard to do in some situations. I’ve worked with notoriously big personalities, whether it’s Martha Stewart or Bruce Wasserstein or Dan Doctoroff, and they’re not as successful as they are by accident. They’re incredibly smart people and you need a strong personality to stand your ground in a discussion with them.
You’re not exactly a shrinking violet…
No, but I think you need that. You need a strong personality in these roles. Not just to stand your ground, but to defend various positions and not shrink when your positions are being pushed.
Do you think to be successful in-house, you need a certain personality and skill set that lawyers in private practice don’t necessarily have?
Yes. It depends on the industry. But I’ve noticed that when we work with some lawyers, they’re good at giving technical legal advice. But when you ask for more practical advice, they struggle. They’ll say this is what the rules and regulations say, here’s what the law says on the matter. But when you try and translate that to what practical advice you can give, they struggle with this. I think good law firm lawyers are good at practical advice, too, by the way. Both a good law firm partner and a good general counsel are able to focus not so much on what the law says, but ok, now knowing all the pieces I know, and the political landscape, the shareholders, all the different constituents that exist, what is the most practical answer that balances all those risks and takes them into account?
What’s a typical day?
Because I run three departments, a typical day could be spending more time with one over the other. It could be dealing with the board, it could be people operations, employee concerns. You name it. I wish I could say I do something the same every day, but other than answering tons of emails…
Do you use outside counsel much?
We do, but not much. We use them in very specific ways. We want to make sure, for example, that all of our hardware and software products are ADA compliant. So we’ll use an expert in ADA rules. Or we’ll be negotiating a lease, we’ll use real estate counsel. But for our day to day contract work, or employment work, we don’t use outside counsel.
I’m a believer in diversity, and I’m constantly trying to expand the pool of law firms and people that we work with.
In terms of law firms, do you have a system? Or do you ask around?
It’s a combination. I have relationships that I’ve developed over the years with individual partners at different firms. We have, for example, a trademark counsel I’ve been working with for year, and we’ll continue to do that. I’m a believer in diversity, and I’m constantly trying to expand the pool of law firms and people that we work with. So I’m constantly looking for firms that might bring some diversity to the table. That’s what I look for.
Did you sign that letter that GCs wrote calling for more law firm diversity?
I did. I’m a firm believer that both the employees in my company and the law firms that we use are representative of the population
Is there any one thing that either worries you or makes you think a lot?
One thing that’s a big worry is the increasing confusion around privacy laws, whether it’s the California law or the GDPR. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of everything. And it’s that internally you need to work with engineers and developers to make sure that your internal databases are sound. And that’s challenging. And it’s challenging to make sure that you’ve got the right controls in place. We work hard at making sure we use best practices. But you can never be too certain.