Marathon Oil Corporation

Energy-law trailblazer Sylvia J. Kerrigan goes where few female general counsel have gone before

Sylvia J. Kerrigan was always destined to work in the energy industry. From the time she set foot in college, you could almost map her future directly to Marathon Oil Corporation’s front door. Now as vice president, general counsel, and secretary of Marathon Oil, Kerrigan oversees approximately 70 employees—about half of which are lawyers—in her groundbreaking role as the first and youngest female general counsel at the billion-dollar oil-exploration company.

Kerrigan was born in Brazil, but spent her early years in the British West Indies. Although she was settled in Texas by the time she was old enough to start kindergarten, the cultural variety she was exposed to in those few years fueled her passion for diversity and traveling. This natural desire to explore probably had a lot to do with the fact that she didn’t follow a direct route to her chosen career. Kerrigan received a bachelor of arts in philosophy, political economy, and English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, before getting her JD from the University of Texas.

Finding Her Niche

While studying for her law degree, she took classes in admiralty and “loved it.” That focus on maritime law, which took her away from general practitioner work, perfectly groomed her for a career in energy law, and that quickly led her to Houston and the Gulf of Mexico, a hotbed area for energy companies. “Nothing demonstrates the intersection of politics, economics, and law more than the energy industry,” Kerrigan says. “You can look at what’s going on in the world today with the price of oil and our interdependency on that in the political world, and see why it’s a fascination of mine.”

After law school, Kerrigan spent five years at a local law firm where she honed her skills by counseling energy, construction, manufacturing, and transportation clients on complex commercial, international, and insurance matters. When her brother-in-law told her about a position available at Marathon Oil, an oil-exploration company that was listed as number 29 on the 2011 Fortune 500 with $73 billion in revenues, she instantly knew it was a good fit. She applied for and got a job as the attorney responsible for Gulf of Mexico operations.

World Stage

In 2000, the United Nations Security Council’s Commission d’Indemnisation in Geneva, Switzerland, was looking for a lawyer with experience in energy law to arbitrate the losses sustained by international energy companies following Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. Kerrigan had the appropriate experience and jumped at the opportunity to play a pivotal role in the unfolding international drama. For the next two years, she served as senior legal officer and team leader. “They set the wells on fire, damaged the reservoirs and refineries. Just the idea of being able to investigate, assess, and administer claims of that magnitude had tremendous appeal,” she says. “I got to spend a lot of time in the Middle East, an opportunity that not many women lawyers at that time had. And I got to spend time in Iran, which as a US citizen, wouldn’t happen today. That was a unique experience. The team I got to lead was so diverse. Not only did it have geographic diversity, but it also had diverse expertise, ranging from forensic accountants to asset valuation experts to reservoir engineers, the whole gamut.”

The Spin-Off

Upon completing her task in Switzerland, she returned to Texas ready for a new challenge. Marathon welcomed her back, making her assistant general counsel for litigation, human resources, and environmental law. In September 2009, she was named vice president and general counsel. The title of secretary was added in November of that year.

Soon after her appointment as GC, she was instructed to help prepare the company to be split into two different firms: Marathon Oil and Marathon Petroleum. “There were people from every department involved in the spin-off,” she recalls. “We were the parent company, so in addition to the agency filings and legal agreements, we provided a lot of the support for the subsidiary and helped them set up new stand-alone departments. My primary role was to distill a huge volume of information and make sure that, to the greatest extent possible, senior management and the board would be kept up-to-date.”

Simultaneous with the spin-off, the legal department helped with more than $5 billion in exploration and production purchases, then in November, orchestrated $4 billion in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) activity. The split was finalized July 2011. “The company put a great deal of trust in me despite the fact that I didn’t come from one of the traditional roles that generally lead to being a general counsel. Usually, GCs have more corporate, finance, or M&A experience. I was the first female GC and the youngest GC in the history of the company. I was grateful they trusted me enough to give me the chance to prove myself.”

Throughout her career, Kerrigan has been a supporter of pro bono work, and Marathon’s in-house pro-bono program has been ranked “best” by the Houston Volunteer Lawyers Program every year since its inception three years ago. Kerrigan is a past chairman of the State Bar of Texas International Law Section and a Life Fellow of the Texas Bar Foundation. She has served on the board of directors for numerous organizations, including the American Leadership Forum, Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts, the Houston Bar Association, and The National Association of Minority and Women-Owned Law Firms.

Kerrigan’s feet are firmly planted at Marathon Oil. “I do love everything about my job,” she affirms. “I love having a deeper understanding of the business and a closer relationship with the clients and I think that’s what drew me to the company. I love representing the legal team and trying to highlight and increase their talents both inside and outside the company. And I’m learning a lot, as well.”