Cindy Buhr has one of her most valuable career lessons—shared with her by a fellow attorney—on the tip of her tongue: to be a great counsel and a trusted advisor, you must walk along with your client—not push them from behind or drag them from in front, but give them the information they need to make the right decisions. “The client will buy into all the insight and decisions if they feel like you’re educating them and working with them,” she says.
At PrimeLending, where Buhr has been since 2010, she recalls those words coming to her aid early in her tenure when an employee issue surfaced that required her involvement. She and the employee met in her office, where he did most of the talking, and she did most of the listening. But she asked him several key questions that shaped the conversation.
“And after talking for about an hour, making the difficult decisions that needed to be made, he was about to leave my office,” she explains. “But then he stopped at the door, turned back to me, and said, ‘You’re good.’ He went on to explain that I’d listened and talked with him in a way that made it seem like he’d come to the decision all on his own.”
Such is a good day in the life of an executive vice president and general counsel like Buhr, who takes the essentials—including fundamental judgment, strong communication, and multiple deadline management—and fortifies them with the ability to make change, mentor others, and build relationships.
For Buhr, it’s that last one that has guided her legal career. She started in private practice, spending eight years at two different firms as a litigation associate. Although she enjoyed being involved in the “big” cases, and even tried a few of them herself, she eventually did some soul-searching to determine what she enjoyed most about being an attorney. “It was the relationships,” she says definitively. “Ours were every-few-years kind of clients, but I liked them so much, I really enjoyed it when they continued working with our firm. So, I determined that being in-house somewhere might be an ideal situation—a place where I can really get to know a client.”
It was time for a change, but what the Dallas-based Buhr was not looking to change was her location. As a result, she made a list of businesses that fit the bill, and at the top of it was Southwest Airlines. She had no connections with the company, but secured an interview with its legal department anyway. One interview led to two. “I really hit it off with both the general counsel and assistant general counsel,” she says. And that led to more than a decade as an associate general counsel for Southwest. It was a rewarding experience with valuable role models, which set the stage for her next position: vice president, assistant general counsel with PlainsCapital Bank—a subsidiary of Plains-Capital Corporation, the parent company to PrimeLending.
PlainsCapital was about to go from a private to publicly held bank, so the need was strong for an assistant general counsel who could hit the ground running as the general counsel’s right hand, someone who could cover day-to-day activities while the general counsel honed in on SEC and merger/acquisition matters.
“It really felt like I was getting in on the ground floor, like in the early days with Southwest. Plus, it gave me a sort of officer role within the company, not to mention the opportunity to learn about the transactional side, which was something I really think I needed in order to keep growing,” she says.
She got to know the executive leadership team at PrimeLending when she was tapped by the company to tend some of its litigation. It was without a general counsel of its own at the time. Before long, they were offering the position to Buhr. “Their leadership style was a perfect match to everything I value,” she says. “It was a bit of a leap; I wondered, ‘Can I really be that person for a company this size?’ But with the kind of encouragement they provided, I gladly accepted. And it’s really been the greatest of opportunities.”
In the six years since she became senior vice president, general counsel at PrimeLending (moving up to executive vice president in late 2012), Buhr has built out the previously nonexistent legal department to include five attorneys and five paralegals/administrative staff. In doing so, she’s also seized on an opportunity to do something she’s felt strongly about for several years: develop a mentoring program. Buhr herself works one-on-one with all of her attorneys as a mentor and then has her attorneys do the same with the paralegals and contract managers. Formal conversations about goals and aspirations take place, of course, but Buhr keeps leadership programs such as the Oregon-based Building Champions in mind for her attorneys as well.
“It’s about digging down and figuring things out,” she says about mentoring. “What are this attorney’s core values? What do they value most in life? And how will he or she plan their life in order to value those things? This program is all about ways to challenge relationships as well as build them with everyone communicating openly.”
Open communication and transparency couldn’t be more critical these days for a financial-based company such as PrimeLending. In fact, Buhr believes it’s perhaps the single most necessary step for continued success. “It’s a little bit of a unique challenge, though, for everyone in our industry to recognize and understand the importance of rebuilding that trust, but I think that’s something PrimeLending takes very seriously,” she says. “We’re trying to provide a seamless experience that customers are comfortable with for a very important time in their lives. Everything we do underscores the importance of that relationship.”