The modern general counsel is effective only when legal acumen is tempered with a keen understanding of an enterprise’s core business. Brian Del Buono adopts just such an approach. With a PhD in microbiology and cell biology as well as a JD, Del Buono oversees all legal and risk-management issues at The Sun Products Corporation, where his team plays a part in helping the company manufacture and market such well-known brands as Wisk, Snuggle, and Sunlight.
What are your main responsibilities?
All legal matters worldwide, but I have a great team of subject-matter experts. If there is anything that comes up from a legal challenge or internal clients that need legal advice, I’m often the first place they come. I manage our legal group and am essentially the face of legal for the corporation.
Is your science background an asset at Sun Products?
Although we end up as generalists, we all start out somewhere else. My area of specialty was intellectual property. It’s helped in my role here because our industry relies on chemistry and biology to help consumers take care of household cleaning needs. My ability to understand the science and talk knowledgeably to R&D, marketing, and innovation partners has helped immensely. My background as a scientist has also trained me to be a data-driven critical thinker and a skeptic who asks questions—and that’s really what you do as a lawyer. I’m a skeptic two times over.
What does a GC need to understand to properly assess risk?
As in-house counsel, it’s important to understand the business and the state of the industry and then provide advice in a business-savvy way. Our internal clients will rarely hear us say no. Instead, we help the company identify risks and factor them in. When we do have to say no, we work to figure out a way around the challenge with a business-sensitive solution.
How do you learn how to operate as a business-centric lawyer?
I’ve always been interested in the bigger picture of any position I’m in, and investigating how what I do fits in to the overall structure or mission of the company. I came here in a different role but had a great mentor who knew my responsibilities would expand as time went on. There was a lot of on-the-job training, but I came here to learn new areas of the law that were of interest to me.
What advice would you give someone considering a position like yours?
Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone and take on new legal areas, because the best way to learn is to do.
How can a GC become an indispensable part of an organization?
You have to be a leader and a partner, and not be seen as a hurdle or roadblock. We’re least effective if our colleagues are hesitant to talk to us. If they see us as someone who can help them see and manage risk to make the best decision, then they see us as leaders and partners.
What specific challenges in your industry affect your role?
Like most consumer-products companies, we are in an intensely competitive industry. Patents and trademarks are crucial, but the most activity is often in marketing and advertising because of highly competitive advertising practices. These issues can become a threat or a challenge to products and reputation. There are many battles on that front. We have to keep our eye out, and we scrutinize this internally and externally on a daily basis.
How did you learn your industry?
Some of this has come from my prior life as a scientist, because our product development and marketing has a lot to do with the science of the products we provide. That has given me a great perspective on our industry. I also take advantage of every opportunity I have to talk to someone about the law relevant to our work. I talk to R&D teams and attend meetings in various departments, and I try to understand trends and what steps we may need to take. I know I need to learn from all available experts. I learn a lot from collaborators, trade organizations, and corporate partners. Frankly, I even learn a lot from watching how our competitors operate.