Meet the General Counsel: Christine Castellano

Christine M. Castellano served as senior vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary and chief compliance officer for Ingredion Incorporated, a leading global ingredients solutions company. After 22 years with Ingredion and its predecessor companies, and six as general counsel, Christine resigned this past February and is looking for her next opportunity. While with Ingredion, Christine provided advice and counsel to the company’s board of directors, officers and management, and directed activities of internal and outside legal counsel around the world. She also served as a non-executive director and member of the audit committee of Rafhan Maize Products Co. Ltd., one of the biggest food brands in Pakistan and listed on the Pakistan Stock Exchange. Christine is a member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, the Illinois State Bar Association, and the North Shore General Counsel Association, and is active in the American Bar Association. She was named by the Illinois Diversity Council in 2017 as one of the Top 15 Business Women in Illinois and by the Ethisphere Institute as one of the 2016 Attorneys Who Matter. In April 2017, Christine received the Anti-Defamation League’s Women of Achievement Award. Active in her community, she serves on the board of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, and The John Marshall Law School, and is a member of the Womens’ Board of the Chicago Zoological Society. In May 2019, she was designated a Certified Diversity Professional from the National Diversity Council.

Dawn Sheiker (DS): What career path you would have pursued if you weren’t a lawyer?

Christine M. Castellano (CMC): Growing up, I always wanted to be a teacher. I was raised by a single mother who had seen her mother, a teacher, struggle financially after she was widowed. Financial security was a very important driver for both my mother and my grandmother as they helped me think about career options. Now, as an adult, I would love to be a writer or a ranger working in the National Park system.

DS: Name a person who has had a tremendous impact on your career. Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

CMC: My mother and grandmother instilled in me the value of education. My mother worked nights to provide for my sister and me and did everything she could to ensure that we received the best educations possible. I also have two very important mentors—Mary Ann Hynes, the former GC of Ingredion and the first female GC in the Fortune 500, and Ilene Gordon, the former CEO of Ingredion and one of the elite group of women to lead Fortune 500 companies. Mary Ann taught me how to be a general counsel, and on a personal note, the importance of finding passion and giving back to the community. Ilene encouraged me to network beyond the law. Through organizations like The Economic Club of Chicago and The Chicago Network, she introduced me to amazing people in the business community.

DS: What is one issue that keeps you up at night?

CMC: In business, we speak about living in a VUCA world—volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous—which is also the world in which we practice law, and most of us do so in a “do more with less” framework. Laws and regulations are changing seemingly overnight and in broad, sweeping ways, for example, just look at data privacy. Political change feeds the creation and enforcement of regulations. What was appropriate business practice yesterday might not be today. How do we, as in house counsel in a lean environment, keep up? How do we make sure that we learn about and can properly evaluate new and ever-changing risk? How do we make sure that we do not overlook the one change that will have a significant impact on our business? And how do we bring our corporations along, knowing that mitigation of risks such as data privacy requires an investment of time and money?

DS: How do you select outside counsel? What can an attorney do to get selected?

CMC: I believe in relationships, so I am looking for attorneys who are the right fit for the business. Legal expertise is a given, but a practical, business-oriented approach is critical to a long-term relationship. I want to feel like my outside counsel is my partner—they are with me in terms of project management, budgeting and forecasting, and working in a lean environment. I do not do procurement-style RFPs, but when I ask for a budget before awarding of work, I expect a thoughtful and detailed response, including key strategy for the matter and different phasing of the work. Most importantly, the preparation of that initial strategy and budget is not something that should show up on my bill after the work is awarded.

Diversity is also important. I am a personal supporter of the January 2019 letter to law firms, signed by 170 general counsels, stressing that they will direct legal spend to firms that have a demonstrated commitment to diversity. Even before that letter, Ingredion partnered with the National Association of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms (NAMWOLF) to source high-quality diverse attorneys. NAMWOLF is one example of how diversity makes business sense—we were able to engage big law caliber talent but at much lower hourly rates. We also would speak openly with relationship partners in larger firms about a diverse attorney working on our matters and would make sure that the firm knew that we supported the careers of individuals who were doing great work. And if a diverse attorney procured our work, I would do what I could to make sure that he or she received the credit within the firm. Although many firms are not yet there in terms of diversity, I encourage them to be proactive in speaking with clients on the topic. Tell us what you are doing, share with us your metrics, and take us along on your journey.

DS: What do you miss about private practice, if anything?

CMC: The law firm environment is a great place to learn from others. I miss being able to walk down the hall and speak with a partner with expertise or experience, or who can just provide perspective on an issue. I miss having the depth of specialty expertise that comes with a private practice, and the ease of staying up to date in your area of the law. I miss the depth and variety of legal resources that law firms offer—partners and associates, experienced of counsel, paralegals, librarians, researchers, and CLE and development programs. Law firms also provide great opportunities for each attorney to give back through pro bono work or community involvement.

DS: What about the handling of legal matters by outside counsel gives you the most headaches, concern, or dissatisfaction? What are the things outside counsel does that make your job easier?

CMC: Good communication makes my job easier. It allows me to address risk and to communicate with my business. By contrast, I do not like surprises. If there is a problem in a case, let me know. Even if the firm made a mistake that caused the problem, let me know. Do not jeopardize my company’s legal position and my reputation within the company by trying to hide it or to solve it on your own. If you cannot adhere to the agreed budget or the strategy isn’t working, call me. If you see a risk that I do not see, let’s have a conversation to make sure that I understand the risk and we have a plan to mitigate it, even if that risk was not within the original scope of engagement. And if you envision a more positive outcome, let me know. Even good surprises can cause internal friction for an in house legal department that is trying itself to communicate and forecast.

DS: What is the highest value activity that outside counsel brings to you? What is the lowest?

CMC: The highest-value activity is the 15-minute conversation with a legal expert with a practical, business-focused approach who solves the problem. The lowest value is the long memo of law written by an associate. It is a good way for the firm to ensure that the newest lawyers write well, but I will never ever have time to actually read it, and I do not want to pay for it.

DS: In a typical matter, what is more valuable to you—the predictability of the outcome or result and cost?

CMC: Outcome is important, but not every legal matter requires a win. Sometimes, even if I know that I will win in court, settling a nuisance claim is a better use of the corporation’s resources—both management time and money—than the victory a year later. As a GC, I am tasked with running the legal department in the same way as the business units. Cost is a critical component. The interaction between costs and result is key, and it is exactly what our business colleagues must deliver every day.

DS: What processes and technological tools would you expect/want outside counsel to offer?

CMC: A pet peeve of mine (after a bad experience with an outside law firm) is that law firm IT systems need at least the same level of controls and protections as those of the clients. In the corporate setting, access to files and drives is restricted by department, function or person. I was astounded when I discovered that a major law firm did not have the same protections around my company’s confidential information. And even worse, when I spoke with other law firms about the issue, many admitted to needing to improve in this area, both in terms of internal employee access to files and prevention of external intrusions. To me, the other “table stakes” process is the ability to budget and forecast—it should be obvious by now, but law firms still struggle with this.

What I would love to see are more on-demand CLE programs; shared collaboration sites for drafting of contracts or pulling together deals; and easy-to-use internet portals where clients can do research. I know that the law firm has written a thousand memos on data privacy, I do not want to pay to have a memo redrafted for me. I just want to get grounded in the area. I also love firms that are able to put together living project management workflows, especially with larger or more complex matters, and document management data sites. And all of these things have to be user-friendly—I do not want to have to remember multiple passwords and try to figure out complicated methods for accessing information on a law firm’s site (remembering that I am working with more than one law firm site). And of course, I do not want to see large charges on my invoices for data site maintenance.

I am very interested in legal operations and the advent of AI in the legal profession. I hope that the law firms will get behind this, and will share best practices with the corporate sector. A law firm wins my loyalty if they make it easier to do routine work, recognizing, as I do, that some work does not require an attorney or hourly bill. In keeping with the need of most legal teams to operate lean, I am not looking to engage a law firm to provide legal operations services. I want them to engage in this space with their clients, and freely share ideas and best practices. A true partnership means that we all get better together. Law firms can build relationships for the future by leading the way in the field of legal operations, especially for smaller corporations.

DS: What do you expect/want from outside counsel with respect to innovation, collaboration and transparency?

CMC: Mental health is a key issue in the legal profession today. Attorneys and legal professionals are generally Type A perfectionists, who want to win and who hold themselves to very high standards. Too often we suffer in silence with issues such as depression, burn out or anxiety. We fear that needing help, or admitting that we cannot continue as we have been, will be career-ending. The day-to-day pressure of the law might make it hard to even recognize mental wellness issues in ourselves and others.

Mental health is not just a BigLaw problem. It is also not limited to attorneys but can affect all of the professionals who have chosen a career in or around the law. It is something that we all need to address, as a profession and as individuals. Outside law firms, however, are uniquely situated to address this issue because they touch so many attorneys’ lives. How many of us started our career and learned to be a lawyer in a law firm? Law firms can start to speak openly about mental health issues, and teach their professionals how to live a life designed to promote wellness. They can encourage and create dialogue around mental health.

The stigma around mental health issues will only lift when more people are able to speak out: “This is my experience, and I am still a great attorney.” Law firms can disincentivize behaviors and expectations that lead to anxiety and burn out. There is no gold star for staying at work every night until midnight. As a client, I do not expect you to return my phone call or email at midnight. I simply want to know how to reach someone who I trust in a true emergency. In law firms and in corporations, let’s have conversations about building a holistic practice that inspires and engages the whole person and protects our most valuable asset, our people.

DS: If you could have lunch with anyone who would it be?

CMC: My mom passed in 1994, just as I was beginning my career. While she was in the Navy, she studied international law, but at that time in history, law school and a legal career was not an option. I would love for her to see my life today, and to thank her for giving me an education, the freedom to achieve whatever I wanted, and a solid work ethic.

About the Author

Dawn V. Sheiker is the director of client relations at Morris James LLP in Wilmington, DE.

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