Things You Didn’t Learn In Law School

Years of experience in private practice, on the trading floor, and in the evolving post-financial-crisis business environment have taught Achilles Perry about providing the best advice to his clients

Achilles Perry made the transition from private practice to in-house counsel by jumping into the world of equity trading. As head of Goldman Sachs Equity Derivatives and Proprietary Trading Compliance, he took on specialized responsibilities for advising traders in a live market.

Achilles Perry, CIBC
Achilles Perry, CIBC

In private practice as a litigator it had been enough to know the law and the facts of a case, but now Perry had to be familiar with the firm’s policies, market practices, business objectives, and client relationships as well. His training as a litigator, which taught him to ask questions effectively and to think on his feet, provided two skills that were essential to his success on the trading floor.

Perry quickly learned that it is important to understand the full context of a transaction. “In-house, decisions aren’t always about the legal answer to the issue presented to you. You have to understand the firm’s practices, client needs, regulatory requirements and risk to the bottom line, and reputation. After assessing all those factors, it often turns out that the best advice extends well beyond legal considerations,” he says.

Balancing the Law And the Business

After three years with Goldman Sachs, Perry moved to CIBC, where he has been vice president and general counsel (US) since 2007. The skills and knowledge he gained on the trading floor have helped him adapt to a broader array of financial transactions in an increasingly complicated regulatory environment.

As the finance industry faces more regulation than ever before, businesses are placing increasing importance on the legal advice they receive. As Perry describes it, this emphasis goes well beyond simply negotiating a contract between two opposing parties. New rules like Dodd-Frank mean that entire categories of transactions that were previously viewed as private contracts between businesses are now subject to additional regulatory requirements.

“The evolution of transaction complexity and the extent of regulatory compliance place even more pressure on lawyers to get it right. In banking, that’s a primary focus for counsel today,” Perry explains.

Being able to synthesize and explain the new rules to business partners is an essential function of the legal team. Outside counsel may have tremendous knowledge and invaluable expertise about the law, but according to Perry, the in-house lawyer tends to have a much keener sense of how the law affects the business.

“It is important for in-house lawyers to get out of the ivory tower. You have to be willing to dive in and put your advice in business terms. That’s particularly hard to do when the rules are constantly changing and you’re still trying to digest it all yourself,” he points out.

The pace of change means that it isn’t uncommon for CIBC legal staff to reorganize priorities in order to deal with the issues that are most important to the business. “It’s a matter of doing triage so that we maintain an appropriate balance between the most pressing business and compliance issues in a timely fashion,” Perry says.

When the law requires changes to business practices, he has found that offering alternatives goes a long way toward cultivating productive relationships. “The ability to clearly explain potential risks and to offer alternatives that still help clients achieve their objectives is essential. It also goes a long way toward helping clients and the firm understand why the path you’re recommending makes sense,” he says.

Succeeding In the Post-Crisis Environment

In addition to adapting to new business and compliance requirements, the way Perry manages his team has evolved as well.“We need strong consensus-building and information sharing across the organization. So our priority is on strengthening internal coordination and cooperation to make sure everyone is working from the same playbook,” he explains.

Perry has always hired highly experienced attorneys but believes that legal expertise is just the beginning of what makes an individual well-suited to join his team. He maintains that the ability to ask questions and understand the full context of a given transaction, even when all the desired information isn’t available, is critical.

“In house you’re often handling new and unique matters. So judgment and flexibility are the traits we look for and apply every day,” he says.

One strategy he uses for identifying the right personnel for his team is asking potential hires to explain challenges they have faced, how they confronted them, and how they feel about the outcomes.

“I’ve learned amazing things about people by talking with them about experiences in their personal lives and understanding what they’ve overcome to get where they are,” Perry says. As a result, he’s built a legal staff that is ethnically and gender diverse, which he thinks adds to his department’s ability to be flexible, see things from different perspectives, and adapt to new challenges.

Ironically, Perry believes that his in-house experience would now make him better in private practice (not that he has plans for switching). He feels he would better understand clients’ priorities and be able to provide better guidance and comprehensive counsel.

When it comes to business, it’s clear that Perry’s sense of adding value goes beyond knowing the law to providing the “right” answer.