A Legal Mind is Good for Business

Tara Trantham upends the perception of the legal department, changing it from the office of “no” to a partner at World Acceptance Corporation

Busy executives prefer bullet points versus long briefings. This is a notion that Tara Trantham knows well. “When my CEO asks for my legal counsel, he doesn’t want a ten-page memo. He wants ten bullet points,” Trantham says.

Tara Trantham, World Acceptance Corporation
Tara Trantham, World Acceptance Corporation

She also understands that to be successful among business executives and upper management you have to be seen as part of the team. “You don’t want the legal department to be seen as the office of ‘no,’” Trantham says. “You’ll not hear of things, you’ll get shut out. I let the executive management team know that I’m here to help them, and if I’m involved in the beginning rather than the end, I can help guide them and help them stay compliant.”

As vice president, secretary, and general counsel at World Acceptance Corporation, a consumer lending company with operations in more than fifteen US states and Mexico, and a roster of more than 4,500 employees, Trantham ensures compliance amid growing state and federal regulations. This includes overseeing the legal, leasing, and bankruptcy departments while also managing all outside litigation, regulatory issues, and filings with the US Securities and Exchange Commission.

In a heavily regulated industry, her role demands a strong strategic leader that can effectively navigate a corporate environment. Trantham is well suited for it, thanks to a career of working closely with business executives from day one.

When many of her peers were starting careers in law firms, Trantham took the business route early on, going directly in house after graduation in the equally regulated industry of healthcare at Agfa Corporation. Her career jump-started thereafter, as a shift in the legal department landed her a role as assistant general counsel. “I gained experience very quickly and became a generalist. That was a huge advantage,” Trantham says.

“When you come into a corporation . . . you have to start by building trust and getting buy-in from the top down by engaging the C-suite so they can get that message delivered to the troops.”

She got a chance to flex her leadership and strategic muscles at Resurgent Capital Services by making a proposal to the general counsel to increase the staff of the in-house legal team rather than outsourcing much of the work to outside counsel, recruiting much of the team that remains today. Her proposal saved the company millions and solidified her place as a leader.

By the time she landed at World Acceptance Corporation in 2013, she had built a reputation as a trusted leader in what Trantham calls a “close-knit installment lending industry,”citing years of building relationships with executive teams as a part of her success.

At World Acceptance Corporation, Trantham’s first task was to work with the vice president of compliance to lead the fifty-two-year-old-company to an automated and integrated compliance system. This involved auditing federal regulations and documenting policies and procedures while establishing new ones, then working closely with human resources to implement changes across training into operations. A second initiative was to create a formal complaint management system to effectively monitor and handle consumer complaints for areas of violation. She developed relationships across departments to successfully roll out the program.

An initiative like this might take many organizations years to install, but it surprisingly only took a year to get off the ground. Trantham credits this success to strong collaboration with the vice president of compliance as well as support from the top. “When you come into a corporation, you have to be patient and understand that the industry has been there for a long time and doesn’t like change,” she says. “You have to start by building trust and getting buy-in from the top down by engaging the C-suite so they can get that message delivered to the troops.”

Crucial to the success of the initiatives also included bringing in a bigger team. “One thing that I’ve always done in my career is that I try to surround myself with, and hire, people that are smarter than me,” Trantham says. She adds that empowering and uplifting the team is one of the greatest attributes of a leader as well as letting people know that they are allowed to make mistakes. “That paralyzes people,” she says. “I want it to feel like more of a team than a dictatorship.”

Now as the general counsel, Trantham works in tandem with all departments on the rollout of government risk and compliance management software. This technology will help her track new laws and regulations and communicate them to all interfacing departments as they become available.

Trantham is also strategically helping guide the company as it grows into the digital age with a recently launched consumer-facing website and mobile messaging programs that all need monitoring for compliance. “We realized that the generation we are dealing with is one on their smartphone, so we needed to get up-to-speed and stay connected,” Trantham says. “We have to meet the customer where they are.”

Outside of her leadership at World Acceptance Corporation, Tara Trantham is active in her community and practices a different set of leadership skills as president-elect of the board of Safe Harbor—a women’s shelter and outreach program in Greenville, South Carolina, which rates number one for domestic violence and homicide. The appointment is full-circle as domestic violence was her original impetus for wanting to practice law. She is also involved in the Diversity Leadership program at the Riley Institute and works often with women leadership programs. “I try to stay involved in the community,” she says.

Whether helping consumers gain access to personal loans by ensuring corporate compliance, driving leadership in her community, or helping women get on the right path, Trantham offers this advice: “You have to stand up and feel strong; be an advocate. If you don’t ask, no one will give it to you.”