This January, Ford Motor Company named Bradley Gayton as its general counsel. In his new role, Gayton stepped into the shoes of David Leitch, who’d been general counsel at the company for a decade, but last fall jumped to Bank of America.
If you’d never heard of Gayton, you could be forgiven: He’s never held a legal job outside of Ford. In law school, he clerked at the company, and not long after earning his law degree from SUNY Buffalo in 1991, he found a job at the automaker.
Gayton’s longevity at Ford is not unique among the lawyers there. According to a Ford representative, half of the members of Gayton’s leadership team, 12 attorneys total, are graduates of the company’s clerkship program.
Gayton said the clerkship program is still the preferred method for hiring lawyers: “Unless there is a really strong unique need to hire laterally, we’ve committed that we will hire and develop people through that program,” he said.
In a recent interview with Big Law Business, Gayton — whose sartorial skills, it should be noted, were recently highlighted by Bloomberg Businessweek — discussed the benefits of training your own lawyers, the challenges facing Ford, and what he hopes to accomplish as the top attorney at one of the world’s leading automakers.
Below is an edited transcript of the first installment of the interview.
Big Law Business: Why have you stuck around at Ford so long?
Gayton: There are a couple of reasons. I’ve had a broad diversity of experiences here. We’re one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies, with a presence globally. We have one of the largest captive finance companies. There is a wide range of issues that you have an opportunity to deal with.
The other reason is my colleagues outside the legal office in the different functions are just so incredibly bright and accomplished. I feel like I get to work with some of the brightest people in the world every day. The same is true of our leadership team — they’re inspiring.
Another thing that’s kind of unique about our company is it’s heritage, and the fact that we still have the benefit of Bill Ford being actively engaged as our executive chairman, which makes it a really special place to work.
[caption id="attachment_12844" align="alignleft” width="275"][Image “Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.” (src=https://bol.bna.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/bgayton-e1461164316212.jpg)]Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.[/caption]
Big Law Business: How important is Ford’s internship program to the legal department?
Gayton: Unless there is a really strong unique need to hire laterally, we’ve committed that we will hire and develop people through that program. Like many other legal clerk programs, it’s structured so that people can pick assignments during the summer. We encourage people to pick assignments in all the different practice groups, both on the Ford Motor Company side but also on the Ford Credit side, so they get exposure to the leaders in the legal office in different functions, and meet the business people in those functions.
That gives us an opportunity to look at some of their work during the summer in both the emerging legal skills that they have but also the softer skills that are required to be successful on the job. The program has a social element as well, just so we can spend time just getting to know each other on a personal level. That’s been the structure of the program since I participated in it sometime ago.
Big Law Business: Hiring laterals only if absolutely necessary — what’s the philosophy behind that strategy?
Gayton: We’ve found the clerkship program to be a really good way to bring people in when they’re early in their careers, get them exposed to the business, and particularly how we counsel and advise our clients. People typically have long careers here.
Over that span you become intimately familiar with the business, so that you’re providing legal advice and sensible solutions with a strong awareness of the business imperatives. I’m having to train laterals about the business later on in their careers. If you bring somebody on that’s younger in their careers, you’ve got the flexibility to make the investment in both the law and the business understandings.
Big Law Business: Will the legal department look different under your leadership than it did under David Leitch? Or do you expect more of the same?
Gayton: David left us with a couple of tremendous gifts. Under his leadership, members of the OGC leadership team started to bring the office together so it operated globally. Instead of operating internationally, with offices in different countries that are coordinated, David brought us together, so that it was really a global office that was functioning in a more collaborative way.
What does that mean? We know and interact with our colleagues in each of the different practice groups around the world. When we need to flex resources we call on that global team to flex resources. I contrast that with an organization that’s structured internationally, where maybe you come together every now and then, and maybe you know your colleagues, and maybe there some level of cooperation, but you haven’t really moved to that next level of collaboration.
For us the real opportunity is to build on what this leadership team did with David’s support, and move up that collaboration maturity curve, so that when we have challenges we’re actually bringing the global team together to think about how to prioritize the things were going to work on, and also to deploy that global team to actually work on these initiatives.
For me, collaboration and transparency are really, really important. I have not come across a solution to a problem that hasn’t been made better through collaboration. I reject the notion of a lone-wolf approach to problem-solving. That is what we will see more of us we go forward.
The other thing that’s changing is of course the business. As we think about the future of mobility, there are tremendous opportunities in front of us, as you think about connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, and what future mobility will look like. That will bring us incredible opportunities to contribute to the business in the legal office.
(In the second installment of the interview, Gayton discusses more changes coming to the Ford legal department, how me manages outside law firms, and the challenges of cybersecurity.)