Hire Smarter Than Yourself

Ari Gabinet, Executive Vice President & General Counsel, OppenheimerFunds

Ari Gabinet knows that the first step to keeping the legal function at OppenheimerFunds ahead of its peers is to attract the best and brightest to his team

As one of the largest investment-management firms in America, OppenheimerFunds, Inc. (OFI) needs a strong legal team. After all, the company manages more than $200 billion for over 12 million accounts. Enter Ari Gabinet. As executive vice president and general counsel, Gabinet oversees OFI’s legal, audit, and compliance functions. To do so, he relies on a solid support team of seven direct reports to ensure OFI’s success.

1. DIRECT EACH EMPLOYEE TO DO THE HIGHEST VALUE WORK POSSIBLE

Gabinet originally wanted to be a writer, but took his father’s advice to enter law school. He graduated University of Pennsylvania Law and worked at the US Securities and Exchange Commission and The Vanguard Group LLC. When the general counsel position at OFI became available, the firm faced heavy litigation. Gabinet, though, had higher aspirations than merely resolving legal issues. “I wanted to take the legal department in a whole new direction,” he explains. Starting in May of 2010 with a legal department accustomed to performing various—and sometimes random—duties, Gabinet stepped in to create functional alignment, establishing specialized, dedicated teams of nonlawyers and sophisticated paralegals working with teams of attorneys in each critical field, from procurement and contracts to mutual-fund advertising (a heavily regulated area). “People should be doing the most important work of which they are capable,” he says.

Another Gabinet philosophy is that of delegating decision making to the lowest competent level, a move that he says creates the best approach for clients. By communicating clearly and creating teams empowered to manage functions and people, he has built a unified approach of consistent legal advice. Gabinet’s next focus is on information sharing. “We’ve got to get everyone talking internally,” he says. “Complex legal problems are never solved with just one person in one way.” At OFI, cross-functional meetings help all employees solve problems quickly.

2. Hire Those Smarter Than Yourself

For Gabinet, a happy workplace is a productive workplace. He believes strongly in creating a welcoming atmosphere that attracts and retrains workers. “The first piece to this is hiring up—hiring smarter than yourself,” he says. “You should never be afraid to hire someone with a great perspective who can add to what you are doing, because that creates a great place in which to work and thrive together.”

A shared sense of purpose adds to the philosophy. Gabinet has found that employees who like their colleagues and bosses are more apt to share information. “We hope to be a team that shares success and learns from mistakes. Good ideas should prevail ahead of individuals.” A sign of success came late last year when a headhunter shared with Gabinet that many prospective employees target OFI for its positive atmosphere and reputation.

3. CREATE VALUE THROUGH INNOVATION

Because the original Oppenheimer Fund was offered more than 54 years ago, Gabinet knows it’s important for his team to stay relevant. “We believe in turning unconventional wisdom into value for investors,” he says. “That’s the company’s belief, and the legal team should contribute.” He pushed back after asking the legal team to create its purpose statement, which was filled with regular clichés like protecting the company from legal harm. “We need to maintain compliance, but also bring creativity and innovation. Our team understands now that when we know the law, we can see solutions that others may not see.” This added value comes when Gabinet’s legal team can understand the goals that lie behind a question and collaborate with partners to maximize returns. The legal team can, for example, provide ways to avoid expenses or tax burdens while merging two funds, or recognize little-known aspects of conflict of interest regulations.

4. ENCOURAGE A HEALTHY BALANCE BETWEEN WORK AND LIFE

Gabinet’s wife is president of Brown University, and the couple has two sons. “There is a theme in life that we often know what we should do but we don’t do it,” he says, meaning that people often spurn family in favor of work. Lawyers, Gabinet says, are happy when productive, but need to be relaxed and stress free. At OFI, some work from home, some work unusual hours, and some take extra vacation. People, after all, stay committed to healthy work environments and dedicate themselves to causes over paychecks.

Additionally, Gabinet says a job applicant in his industry should vet his prospective employer. “Work is somewhere you spend a lot of time every day. It’s not a great idea to be somewhere you’re miserable,” he explains. Lawyers, who often have the luxury to pick and choose their workplace, should make sure they are aligned with a firm’s or company’s culture. First, a lawyer should examine his own personality to discover what makes him tick. Next, one should ask the right questions in the interview process. “Ask basic questions in round one, then talk to the people you’ll be working with about reputation and ethics, then find out about mobility and get information from ex-employees, outside peers, and others,” Gabinet says. “It’s an important process.”

5. ENJOY SUCCESS

For general counsel, a matrix by which to measure success is important. “My boss congratulated me on a good year last year, but I want to make sure I contribute to the planning and execution of the company vision,” Gabinet says.

A corporate lawyer knows he’s successful when he is included in planning teams and vision meetings. “I feel like I’m doing my job when I see things I’ve help shaped or champion become part of what Oppenheimer does,” Gabinet explains. He has also seen colleagues call upon his direct reports—trusting them to step in with little to no oversight. “I see people around here busy, engaged, and smiling a lot,” he says. “That makes me believe that we’re on the right track.”