“If You Consider Yourself Part of the Team, Not Just ‘Legal,’ You Will Be More Sensitive”

As general counsel for The Vitamin Shoppe, Jean Frydman has led complex acquisitions and minimized risk. She shares insight for successfully going in-house

Broaden your horizons.

When you work at a law firm, you specialize, but when you go in-house you need to be willing to go beyond your sweet spot, the skill you were probably hired for. For instance, our company has 900 contracts with merchants and vendors to review each year. When I was hired, we had no review system in place, so whoever asked the loudest got their contract reviewed first. I introduced an operating procedure that includes a software system that generates notification dates and forces us to go through the checks and balances. It’s a more equitable system, and it also helps us with compliance.

There’s no “I” in Team.

You have to work with various disciplines in the company and really put yourself in their place in order to be proactive in finding solutions. If you consider yourself part of the team, not just “legal,” you will be more sensitive to departmental goals, timelines, and agendas. I’m fortunate to be part of the executive team here and involved in all the planning going forward, including compensation packages, benefits, how we invest 401ks, our long-range strategy, marketing and merchandising, and budgeting.

Share your skills.

An effective in-house general counsel is a good teacher. I often need to explain why things must happen a certain way to meet compliance. With our purchase of Nutri-Force, we’ve taken over a company that previously did not have in-house counsel, and we’re introducing some new processes, often to minimize our risk profile. It’s not enough to say, “It’s the law.” You need to have a dialogue.

Go out to lunch.

Don’t underestimate the importance of informal meetings with department leaders. Meeting regularly with these folks ensures there are fewer surprises. I meet weekly with HR to discuss upcoming trainings and review litigation dockets. I’m also in frequent contact with the finance department to discuss any expenses related to litigation, and we meet with the merchants about contracts with new vendors. Once a month, I meet with the CEO’s direct reports to hear what they might need from us. It’s all geared toward making sure the departments have the legal support they need to minimize risk.

Once a year, my legal department and I—about twelve folks in all—go off-site for two days for a business retreat. We have outside counsel come in to talk about new law trends, discuss planning and goals, and generally assess where we are and where we need to be. I have to fight for this every year, but it’s an important, educational opportunity and outlet.