CRST International’s Culture of Know

CRST International’s Lisa Stephenson explains how building relationships and identifying risk helps make the general counsel an indispensable partner

As one of the largest transportation companies in the country, CRST handles freight across the contiguous United States, Mexico, and Canada. Crossing all those borders means the organization needs to keep track of a myriad of different safety regulations, environmental regulations, employment laws, Department of Transportation regulations, and more. CRST comprises eight separate operating companies, which require a lot of communication and collaboration to keep everyone on the same page when it comes to potential legal issues. Although many legal professionals might approach managing that risk with a big “No!” rubber stamp, general counsel Lisa Stephenson works to keep everything running smoothly at CRST.

“I don’t believe in perpetuating a culture of no,” Stephenson says. “I really like to work with our executives and figure out how we can be creative and find workable solutions.” That comes, in part, from a history full of challenging roles in complex organizations. After receiving her JD from the University of Iowa, Stephenson clerked for two federal judges in the Northern and Southern Districts of Iowa and then spent some time in private practice. While working at Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman PLC, she worked extensively on matters for the firm’s biggest client, CRST.

In fact, Stephenson’s relationship with her predecessor, CRST’s first general counsel, Eric Baker, exemplifies her approach to the role. The two worked closely in her time as outside counsel for CRST, and when he decided to go into private practice, she found that her strong relationships at the organization and institutional knowledge made her a natural fit for Baker’s role. And that focus on people and relationships has continued to be a driving force in her career. “Eric was well respected, and he’s still a dear friend,” she says. “And now I hire him, ironically, as an outside counsel for some of our cases.”

Maintaining strong relationships with outside counsel is an important part of Stephenson’s role. As the head of a two-person legal department for such a large organization, she must have trusted partners across the country in a variety of fields. “I couldn’t do this job without those relationships,” she says. “I think the fact that it wasn’t long ago that I was sitting in their chair helps.” Whether it means finding someone just down the block or across the country, Stephenson works to find the go-to firm to handle any issue that might come up. Although her team in-house is only two people, she sees this network of outside counsel as an extension of the department and values them as such.

That said, Stephenson loves that she’s able to touch every part of the business, after primarily handling employment work as outside counsel. “I’m involved in safety, in regulatory, and, right when I started with CRST, I got to work on the largest acquisition it had ever done,” she says. “That’s something I had never done professionally, and I learned so much from getting involved.” Rather than having multiple clients and driving toward specific trial dates, she relishes the opportunity to focus on a single, large client and to know that decisions she makes will have ramifications for decades to come. From negotiating major contracts to handling sensitive employment matters, Stephenson makes sure to identify potential risks, communicate them to the necessary CRST teams, and work with them to mitigate any exposure.

In addition to building strong relationships with outside counsel, Stephenson is sure to bring that focus to her own organization. “I know the president of every one of our eight operating companies,” she says. “We talk on the phone all the time. I’m blessed to work with true experts in their respective fields. It’s a true team effort around here, and everybody’s expected to be at the top of their game.”

Although it’s been a steep learning curve getting up to speed with the business focus, CEO David Rusch has been a strong mentor and guide. “He’s wicked smart and a shrewd businessman, but in his heart, he is a teacher,” Stephenson says. “He takes joy in mentoring and teaching people that want to learn.” That collaborative, hardworking spirit runs throughout CRST, and Stephenson is proud to make it a big part of her work.

Mentorship heavily influenced how Stephenson arrived to that value system. When working with Judge John Jarvey, she learned from his keen legal mind and the honor he felt in serving others. Kevin Visser, Stephenson’s senior partner at Simmons Perrine, reinforced in her the value of hard work and being prepared. But, first and foremost, Stephenson credits her parents. “I go back to pretty humble beginnings here in Iowa, watching my parents get up and go to work every single day,” she says. “They didn’t have high-paying, glamorous jobs. They just went to work every single day and were loyal and hard workers to provide for our family.”

Even though this is her first role in-house, Stephenson sees the impact that legal has on nearly every issue that CRST faces. “In today’s day and age, there’s a legal aspect to everything a business does,” she says. But the organization’s strong roots and entrepreneurial spirit mean that challenges and opportunities to learn are welcomed—and while Stephenson works to help manage risks, some are absolutely necessary for the success of CRST. “You have to take risks, you have to grow, and you have to make wise business decisions,” she says. “My job is a small but hopefully important role in facilitating that.”

The scope of Lisa Stephenson’s responsibilities as general counsel for CRST is daunting, including risk management, acquisitions, and supervision of litigation nationwide. We at Lewis Brisbois have been honored to assist Ms. Stephenson in these efforts, and her composed and professional handling of these responsibilities is extremely impressive.

Congratulations to Lisa Stephenson on her recognition as an innovative leader in the transportation industry. Gallivan, White & Boyd, P.A.’s Commercial Transportation Team is proud of its relationship with CRST International and the legal support and services it provides to it in North Carolina and South Carolina.

Jenner & Block is proud to be part of the strategic legal team assembled by Lisa Stephenson. She is a visionary leader with extraordinary insight, judgment, and good nature. A great and growing company like CRST deserves no less. Jenner & Block is a destination law firm for complex commercial litigation and sophisticated corporate transactional work. With more than a century of unrelenting client advocacy experience, clients around the world trust Jenner & Block with their most sensitive, strategic, and consequential matters.