After years of watching the TV drama LA Law on her parents’ laps, Rachel Engelstein never doubted that she wanted to practice law. “It looked exciting and glamorous. As I got older, I was drawn by the combination of high drama and advocacy,” she says.
Her participation on her high school’s mock trial team further fueled that dream. “We were coached by a practicing attorney, and the trials were presided over by sitting judges,” Engelstein recalls. “It was an amazing learning experience that affirmed my desire to become a litigator.”
Engelstein later earned her JD at Fordham University in 2003 and then joined broad-based litigation firm Herrick Feinstein LLP. The firm needed a junior associate in its Princeton office, and because she lived nearby, she was assigned there. Engelstein recalls how she was the only first-year in the office, assisting two senior litigation associates and two partners. “I was their go-to associate, which provided me with a lot of early, substantive experience,” she says. “All of their mentoring energy was focused on me.”
After eight years with the firm, an opportunity to move in-house arose. Although she was happy at a private practice, Engelstein says that the move in-house enabled her to become a part of a team as a true business partner. In 2012, she joined GAF, the largest roofing manufacturer in North America, as senior counsel.
Her move in-house also brought about a shift in perspective. “I began to see how each dispute, whether it involved a commercial relationship or a potential product issue, was not a discrete matter, but it instead had significance to the business,” Engelstein says. Now, rather than seeing disputes as problems that had been pushed onto lawyers, Engelstein viewed them as opportunities to identify ways to minimize risk and help prevent problems before they occurred.
For instance, when contract disputes arise, counsel often discover that certain terms could have been drafted more precisely. So, in addition to defending the company’s interests, Engelstein believes that it is important to help her business colleagues take the lessons learned from the disputes and translate them into action.
Read more of Profile’s Top 50 articles.
She also spends significant time developing training programs, often focusing on the potential ramifications of imprecise documentation or careless communication, as well as using examples from actual claims and litigations as teachable moments. “I view each of my matters as a learning experience,” Engelstein says. “By developing training using people’s own emails, I can help my business partners improve their communication skills, which increases efficiency and minimizes risk.”
Her strategic business focus has led to numerous promotions. After being named vice president and chief litigation counsel in 2014, she was tasked with building a litigation team. When she first started at GAF, Engelstein recalls how there were two other litigators, but she says they weren’t a team.
“We were each working on our own matters without much collaboration,” she recalls. Now, Engelstein’s primary focus when hiring other attorneys is to identify candidates she believes will work well with each other and with others in the company. And so far, she’s been successful. “The cohesiveness of the litigation team is one of my proudest accomplishments,” Engelstein says.
In 2017, having proven her ability to manage the GAF litigation group, she was promoted to chief litigation and compliance counsel for Standard Industries, GAF’s parent company. She now has global responsibility for overseeing all litigation and compliance matters for the various worldwide operating businesses. With notable experience in data privacy and security, she also chairs the company’s Information Security and Enterprise Data Management steering committee.
Some wouldn’t necessarily consider data security to be a major concern for a building materials company, but GAF is constantly investing in new technology. In fact, innovation is one of the core principles at the company. “We’re always trying to find new ways to use technology to benefit our customers, whether it’s for homeowners to see how our product is going to look installed on their home or for contractors to check the status of orders,” says Engelstein, adding that GAF’s technological innovation comes with compliance considerations.
Engelstein admits that when she began working with the IT department she had much to learn about the company’s technology initiatives. This is also one of the tenets she promotes for her team: to learn from others in the company. “Asking questions and being a good listener are incredibly important qualities for in-house counsel,” she says. “I’m always asking others for input and ideas. By showing that we have a desire to learn, people become eager to educate us, and we’re able to build stronger relationships with our peers.”
For example, Engelstein recalls when there was some concern about the performance of a product. Representatives from various departments discussed the problem, but there was some miscommunication and finger-pointing. Recognizing that they weren’t making progress, Engelstein sat down with each of the stakeholders and let them tell their side of the story. When the group came together, Engelstein was able to lead the discussion and objectively explain the various perspectives, which helped everyone get past their individual differences and focus on their common goal. Fortunately, there was no actual product issue—only some confusion as to the interpretation of certain test results. “Some people might think we wasted time going through all of that, but it was an instructive process that showed us how to improve our interactions in the future,” Engelstein says.
She also encourages the attorneys with whom she works to continuously demonstrate how they can help—and not just with legal issues. “We joke sometimes that we should have degrees in social work,” Engelstein says. “We are constantly serving as sounding boards for our business colleagues.” But all that listening is clearly paying off. “We have gained their trust, and now they turn to us for help and support whenever they need it,” she continues.
Fitzpatrick applauds Rachel Engelstein for her legal expertise, business integrity, dedicated leadership, and significant achievements at GAF. We are proud to work with her and the entire GAF legal team and to join with Profile in recognizing Rachel’s many accomplishments.
Founded in 1928, Herrick, Feinstein LLP is a prominent law firm headquartered in New York City providing a full range of legal services, including real estate, art law, bankruptcy and business reorganization, commercial litigation, corporate law, employment law, government relations, insurance, intellectual property, sports law, and tax and personal planning.
Photo: Stefanie Diamond