Head of the Class

Building a stellar legal team with DeVry’s Greg Davis

The smartest lesson Greg Davis applies on a daily basis is relying on a great team. The general counsel for DeVry is quick to reach out to a network of outside experts to ensure DeVry gets the legal expertise it needs. PHOTO: Samantha Simmons

Though he’s accumulated years of legal expertise in various sectors, Greg Davis, DeVry Inc.’s general counsel, says the wisest person is one who admits he knows nothing. “I have a quote from Socrates on my bulletin board that says, ‘The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing,’” he says. Keeping this Socratic philosophy in mind, Davis successfully tends to the legal needs of DeVry, a global provider of higher education that operates several institutions, including DeVry University. Here, Davis shares how he climbed to his current position as senior vice president, general counsel, and secretary, and offers advice for fellow attorneys.

I started out as an aspiring trial lawyer with a prominent firm in Chicago, Seyfarth Shaw LLP. In 1991, I was approached with an opportunity at Anderson Worldwide. I had a chance to broaden the range of my experience and work with some of the best outside counsel in the business. I became a partner at the firm in 1998, and a few years later was invited to move into a business role with Arthur Andersen’s newly-formed expansions and alliances team. The Enron debacle brought that chapter in my career to an unexpected end.

An opportunity with La Petite Academy gave me a chance to combine my core legal skills with my business experience in an exciting entrepreneurial venture. I became the general counsel of La Petite Academy in 2003. For its size, the early-childhood education company had an unusually large range of legal needs. It was highly regulated. It was an SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] filer due to its public debt. It was a multiunit business with a lot of real estate and a large workforce. It had a significant litigation portfolio. We got a lot of experience with crisis management caring for 85,000 children on any given day. In 2007, the collective success of a terrific management team enabled the sale of La Petite to a strategic buyer, so once again it was the end of a chapter, but this time it was a happy ending. As it happened, one of the directors on the La Petite board was a cofounder of DeVry. He approached me about being considered for the general counsel position. One thing led to another, and here I am, almost five years later.

We run a pretty lean organization. When I got here my focus was on building a great team, and this also required me to roll up my sleeves and help with whatever was needed. I’ve since added a very capable associate general counsel who looks after an increasing portion of the day-to-day work, so I can concentrate on strategic matters and on advising our board and senior management team.

I see my responsibilities as falling into two broad, general categories. The first is as a trusted adviser to the board and senior leadership on matters of critical importance. It involves a lot of anticipation. I try to stay a step ahead of things and avoid surprises above all else. I spend a lot of time thinking what these key constituents might ask and what else I can contribute to the thought mix.

There is a learning component to it. I have a quote from Socrates on my bulletin board that says, “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.” I feel “wise” in that sense sometimes, because it’s not unusual for me to need to come up the curve quickly on a complex subject. For this I rely on a network of outside experts. This is one of the most enjoyable aspects of what I do—getting to work with these great lawyers, learning, and developing a working partnership with them.

The second general category of my responsibilities is managing the delivery of legal services to a large, complex, diverse, international organization. The first and most important thing I do in this regard is to make sure I have great people who share my vision, work as a team, and embrace DeVry’s culture of integrity. If I do that well, everything else gets easier. The second element of this is getting a talented group of individuals to work together as a team while simultaneously integrating themselves with the institutions and functional areas they serve. These closely integrated relationships are what enable DeVry attorneys to be proactive, solution oriented, and successful.

I’ve always been goal oriented, and that fits perfectly with the DeVry culture of continuous improvement. Every year, the senior leadership team sets goals for the organization. As a function head, I set detailed, measurable goals that align with those of the organization. In turn, members of my team set goals that support and align with mine. All these goals get broken down quarterly, monthly, and even weekly. We review our progress regularly and hold ourselves accountable. It’s a system that I’ve come to appreciate.

For those interested in joining an organization as in-house counsel, I’d suggest looking, above all, for a place where you can work with high-quality people who value what you do. Then, concentrate on helping your team succeed and trust that collective success will get you further, and leave you more satisfied, than focusing on your own individual success.