Name: Terra Potter
Company: Hexcel Corporation
Role: Regional General Counsel – Industrial EMEA/AP
Trained at: Ince & Co
Year qualified: 2008
What’s your most vivid memory from being a trainee?
Working at a litigation firm for my training contract, I remember being absolutely baffled that, when asking clients for copies of the signed, executed contractual documents and amendments, they simply didn’t have them. “Nope – no contract.” “Now… there may have been one… back in 1998 or maybe even 2001, and I’m sure that we agreed terms and sent it to each other.” “I’ve found a pdf of it… but it seems to be missing pages 38 to 51… not sure how…”
Having been in-house for eight years I completely and totally understand how this happens, so work hard in my own organisation to address those contractual black holes.
What is the wisest thing anyone ever said to you (and who said it)?
“You must never assume that the person instructing you has any idea what they’re talking about.” This was coming from a partner that I had desperately wanted to impress with when I was a trainee and whom I had, quite evidently, deeply disappointed(ish).
Twice the partner had told me to draft an advice memo, even though the email from the client had requested a draft letter before action. I never clarified as, in my rational opinion, you shouldn’t ask a question that someone had pre-empted twice. His words of wisdom came after he’d admonished me for my failure to provide the client with what they’d requested.
I’d failed the basic law school essay exam, the partner said: I’d not read the full question asked. “I did”, I said, somewhat indignantly, “You told me to do a memo – twice! So, I did a memo.” Instead of apologising, accepting this answer, sharing a portion of the blame, he just shook his head in a somewhat disappointed manner and said those words of wisdom, no doubt intending to be glib.
I’ve allowed it to shape how I work in a number of ways as it’s actually quite freeing. Firstly, it doesn’t matter how senior, how “important” or how experienced the person instructing me is – if there is critical information that I need or if I disagree or require further information, I have an absolute duty to request the information or put forward my advice without regard to their position.
Secondly, when I’m instructing someone, I make it clear what is known and what isn’t known to me. I also ensure that I communicate that I welcome pertinent questions and challenges.
Who (for better or worse) has been the most influential person in your career? Why?
I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of unofficial mentors over the years that have had massive amounts of influence in my career. They’ve all shared the same characteristics- being capable of engaging in meaningful dialogue, with honesty and vulnerability.
Most of all, this has presented itself by them being extremely forthright, not shying away from difficult conversations and being proactive in providing actionable constructive criticism. I may not always have enjoyed all of the meetings with my mentors but just because you’ve had a hard conversation, doesn’t make it a bad one.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to where you are/do the job you do?
Get used to the fear and uncertainty. Get comfortable being uncomfortable and not knowing everything and having to advise in those circumstances. Remember that if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not working fast enough.
Having said that, don’t make the same mistake twice – find new and interesting ways of screwing up.