When Brackett B. Denniston III was first embarking on his law career, he never would have foreseen ending up as senior vice president and general counsel for General Electric (GE). “It would have been around 65th on my list when I graduated from law school,” Denniston says. “It was almost the last thing I was thinking about.”
The reasons for this are cultural (corporate legal departments used to be seen as second-class destinations compared to firms, something that Denniston credits GE with changing), as well as personal: upon graduating magna cum laude from Harvard Law, Denniston was keen to throw himself into public service. He’s also never been one to map out a 30-year career plan. “Those people are fooling themselves,” he says. “You have to do a job well and see when the door opens and take that door.”
Denniston began his career as a law clerk for the Ninth Circuit. He later served in the US Attorney’s Office as chief of the major frauds unit, where he was responsible for white-collar-crime prosecutions—he was awarded the Director’s Award for Superior Performance by the Department of Justice for his role in more than 100 successful prosecutions. Denniston worked after his clerkship and later continued his success in white-collar-crime cases at Boston firm, Goodwin, Procter & Hoar LLP, where he also specialized in complex civil litigation and securities matters. Finally, he served as chief legal counsel to William F. Weld, governor of Massachusetts, before joining GE as vice president and senior counsel of litigation and legal policy in 1996.
Chasing Complex Cases
“When I was a young associate, I liked complex matters, particularly financial matters, because they were intricate, could move fast, were interesting,” explains Denniston, reviewing his career. “Also, people seemed to think I could do them pretty well. I did tender offers, takeovers, proxy contests, security class actions, and all those involved some element of financial and securities. I did pharmaceutical white-collar defence, and I also did some complex cases that weren’t financial. I did a child sexual-abuse case. I like the complicated and the challenging—it’s just more interesting.”
He became general counsel in 2004, something that he describes as a career highlight, along with his role as chief legal counsel to the state—“a wonderful job that I enjoyed.” But, beyond the complex and the complicated that he’s always had an affinity for, Denniston has found great satisfaction in doing the job well and, through doing so, protected somebody.
For Denniston, the highlights of a career also blur into the low lights to become a series of vital learning experiences: his first trial was a hung jury, something he describes as “not a happy day.” “Ultimately the guy was convicted when I retrialed,” he adds. “I’ve lost a few cases, with outcomes that I didn’t like, but you just have to learn from those. If you don’t lose a case every once in a while then you aren’t taking chances and you aren’t doing it right. You have to take some risk.”
Parallels to 30 Rock
Today, Denniston is responsible for the GE legal organization worldwide and for all GE legal operations. While it isn’t part of his job to closely monitor 30 Rock, the comedy that frequently pokes fun at NBC’s parent company, Denniston says that he enjoys the show, and describes Tina Fey as, “one of the great talents in entertainment.” He also jokingly confirms that, “there are a few Jack Donaghys walking around here, from time to time.”
But, while businesses are frequently portrayed negatively on the show and in the media in general, Denniston views companies as, for the vast majority of the time, a very positive force in society. “Their cultures of compliance and integrity, their job creating, their innovation, they are forces of immense good,” he says. “That’s all satisfying to be a part of.”
Outside of the office, Denniston is a family man. He reports having hiked many of the major New Hampshire mountains with his three children, enjoys biking the back roads of Maine in summer, and also likes to ski, bike, and swim for exercise. “I like to try for a good work/life balance,” he adds. “Although my family probably wouldn’t say I’m balanced enough. It’s always good to get away and see some interesting places, go ski a mountain.”
For Denniston, the future is not to be planned, but approached with the same tenets that he’s employed from day one: do the best job possible, do it with high integrity, but also with a sense of humor—have fun. “Ultimately, the job is about producing an outcome that serves a good interest,” he says. “I believe very strongly that all the things I have done as a lawyer have been serving a positive interest.”