How Peter Saba Cultivates Transformation

Schnitzer Steel's general counsel builds a robust, focused legal department

Thanks to Schnitzer Steel, a car’s useful life doesn’t end at the junkyard after hobbyists and parts hunters have picked it clean. That vehicle gets crushed in a compactor and then broken down further in a car-scaled shredding device similar to an office paper shredder. Then, that reborn steel goes on to have new lifetimes. In 2016, the company’s recycling division recycled and shipped more than three million tons of scrap metal and sold it to customers in twenty-four countries.

Peter Saba, SVP, General Counsel, Secretary of Schnitzer Steel Industries

Likewise, Peter Saba is cultivating transformation within the company.

Saba, Schnitzer’s general counsel and corporate secretary, knew that he would be responsible for revitalizing the legal department. “This was part of the mandate,” he says. “Part of why I was interested in assuming this position was the ability to transform and shape the legal division.”

When Saba arrived at Schnitzer in July 2015, he discovered a slim in-house legal operation of just two lawyers who relied heavily on outside counsel. The pair were high-quality lawyers with knowledge and experience, but a company with $2 billion in revenue needed a deeper roster.

At the time, Saba explains, conditions did not favor hiring. “Given the market cycle, we were in the midst of significant initiatives to reduce costs,” he says. The organization was cutting personnel to achieve that end, but Saba had to persuade company leadership that a larger legal roster was actually key to a healthier bottom line. “Where there was a steady flow of work—a high frequency of legal involvement—it made sense to bring more of that in-house,” he explains. “It fulfilled the objective of providing better service, still utilizing outside counsel, but on a more specific basis.

That crucial point is the premise for Schnitzer Steel’s emerging legal department: excellent in-house legal counsel delivers sustainable value in ways that outsourcing alone cannot match. The department now aims to develop exemplary and timely in-house legal support, engage with business initiatives from the early stages, and provide fulfilling work experiences to team members—all to maximize value for the company.

Saba estimates that the transformation of Schnitzer’s legal department is around 50–75 percent complete. “You never get to 100 percent,” he says, emphasizing that this is also a continuous process of improvement. He can, however, name some of his conditions of success. “It’s a division that’s adequately staffed to provide high-quality and timely legal support throughout the organization on both routine matters and extraordinary items, with a combination of in-house and external resources,” he says. For Saba, that means overseeing governmental affairs, public relations, and environmental compliance functions while integrating all of those functions.

Even at this stage, Saba is receiving encouraging feedback. A regional manager recently called him about incorporating the legal team early on in a project. “I realized that those relationships were developing, and the process was working,” he says. “That’s the measure of success: when you’re being asked to join the party at the beginning and not after the authorities have arrived.”

By arriving to that party early and helping to set the table, the legal team builds and reinforces those relationships to minimize risk and keep departments focused. They identify potential hazards and generate possible solutions. As such, they are developing a reputation as invested, forward-thinking partners.

Saba also advises his team to remember to advocate for themselves, too, when the legal department scores wins for the company. That’s particularly valuable when the department is still developing its role and relationships within the organization.

“It’s important for the department to market its successes,” he says. “Where it results in revenues or awards that go straight to the bottom line, you shouldn’t be shy about promoting those successes. But even where the effect has been a defensive matter, even if it’s reducing costs or avoiding penalties, make sure that the rest of management is aware.” Clearly communicating those contributions, he says, paints the legal department as mission-oriented and investment-worthy.

Maintaining that open dialogue means that the legal team can be responsive to the changing needs of the business. Saba regularly sits down with the business partners and the in-house team to assess progress and identify areas for improvement. “It’s a combination of demonstrating value to the business partners and helping to formulate solutions, rather than just identifying obstacles,” he explains.

Although it’s critical for his legal department to align with the business interests of the company, Saba also prioritizes the personal fulfillment of his team members. That’s a mission with its own balancing act. “It’s a combination of providing them with resources and support and giving them independence,” he says. “I always have an open-door policy. It’s an ongoing, constant process. It happens every day.”

Saba, too, is still learning. After posts in energy, finance, and private practice and teaching positions at Georgetown and American University, he is in the recycling business for the first time. It’s a long way from the ivory towers of a law school, Saba says, but he relishes the challenge of staying effective in both the boardroom and the scrapyard.

“One of the most gratifying aspects of the work is this company is helping to build toward a more sustainable future,” he says. “The challenge here is to achieve this broad goal through the best environmental practices.” Likewise, Saba wants to use an approach through which Schnitzer’s revitalized legal department satisfies the business partners, the company, and the individual lawyers on the team.

“That is my view of the world,” he says. “That’s what I’m trying to achieve here, so that the company is best served, the business partners are best served, and the lawyers feel best utilized.”

Nixon Peabody enjoys working with Schnitzer’s legal department because we feel like we are part of one team. This obviously starts at the top with Peter. In addition to being an exceptionally smart lawyer, Peter is also very approachable, thoughtful, and appreciative. These qualities are instilled from top to bottom throughout the legal department.