Interview with Grace Chen of Hewlett Packard Enterprise
Jas K. Maan
Grace Chen | Hewlett Packard Enterprise
Posted Monday, May 8, 2017
This interview examines the differences between firm work and in-house practice through the lens of a practitioner that has experienced both.

Thank you, Grace, for doing this interview with the Business Law Journal. In this interview, I would like to focus on your firm practice versus in-house experiences. For my first question I would like to ask if you would describe your practice area at HP and what it entails?

I support all of the equity and benefits functions for HPE, so that means all of our equity programs worldwide and also, all of our benefits programs in the United States. I work closely with the compensation committee and the other committees that support our benefits programs. We offer equity in over a hundred countries so that involves securities filings as well as tax filings. I also advise HR and stock plan administration on day-to-day questions that that they may have.

Can you speak a little bit about your career trajectory and what led you to work for HPE?

Furthermore, what firms and for how long did you practice in the private realm prior to joining HPE?

I worked in a firm from 2007 to 2015 - I was first at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and then Fenwick & West LLP. I decided to go in-house because I wanted a career-shift, I didn't think I wanted to be partner and I wanted something with more of a work-life balance to spend more time with my children because I have young kids. Also, I wanted to see more of the business side of things because at a firm, you advise clients from the outside and I became interested in becoming more involved in decision-making and providing day-to-day counsel to my clients.

How is your day-to-day practice different in-house compared to what it was like at a firm? Please describe how your individual practice area has changed in-house. Has your practice varied - touching more practice areas in one circumstance versus the other?

My practice in-house is much more varied because people will come to you with a variety of questions. When you're outside counsel, companies engage you on more discrete projects, whether it be a discrete transaction, to draft a plan, or to fix something that may have gone awry. When you're in-house, you see things on a more day-to-day basis and people will ask you random questions. For example, I once dealt with an issue related to a FedEx package that was not delivered. In-house the questions you receive will not always be legal questions, but you still provide a legal answer and so people are not always satisfied with the answer. As in-house counsel you are trying to find the best solution for your client that mitigates risk, but also gets the client what they want - you want to do what is best for the business and that may encompass more risk. In comparison, as outside counsel, you work on discrete issues and your advice is a lot more conservative because you want to make sure you cover everything that may go wrong and to express all of the risks present.

Are there certain practice areas that are more prevalent at a firm or in-house?

I think for any company, whether it be small or large, what you'll find, at least in the Silicon Valley where most of my practice has been, is that there will be commercial attorneys. They will do licensing or IP work -- a company's IP is very important and so, if you're looking to go in-house, typically lawyers with an expertise in IP tend to have more opportunity to go in-house. After that, it might be corporate attorneys, but a company will not likely need a lot of corporate attorneys unless it is a larger company such as HPE. But in general, corporate attorneys are exposed to a lot of different practice areas, so they are more able to position themselves better to do in-house work. I've seen corporate attorneys later do IP or commercial practice in-house.

As a specialist attorney, it's harder to make that jump because you don't really advise on any of those topics. A company will not likely have a need for a specialist, for example, in executive compensation and benefits, employment, or real estate, unless it is a larger company. But a company may be more likely to need an employment practice area rather than executive compensation and benefits because employment issues will arise in a small or large company, whereas, a executive compensation and benefits practice is probably less necessary for a smaller company.

At a law firm, you will see more practice areas than you would at a company because only larger companies will need more practice areas covered. Many smaller companies may have General Counsel that is their only in-house attorney.

In sum, because some practice areas at a firm touch a variety of other practice areas, attorneys in those practice may be able to market or place themselves in an in-house position a little bit more easily or naturally than others.

On that same note, do you see a lot of tax attorneys in-house?

There are in-house tax attorneys, but in the case of HPE, they are more so in the finance department rather than the legal group.

How would you compare the culture of in-house practice versus private law firm practice?

What I liked about working at a firm was that you have a lot of people who are around your age group because you have class, for example, you start with your summer classes and so you kind of have this group of people who are in the same boat with you, going through the same experiences. So when you're younger it's fun to work those long hours or gripe about it because you have a lot of people who are in the same situation as you. Associates will get dinner or drinks, or run to each other's offices and speak about the challenges or highlights of their workdays. There is definitely a comradery. The in-house environment is more family-oriented, so people don't stay there all the time - people want to go home and be with their families. In-house departments tend to skew older unless you have like a new attorney program as HPE does, which can be good to bring in a new energy. For me, my lifestyle changed, after I had my two boys and was still working at a firm, I wasn't able to like dinner at 8:00 PM and then come back and work. But both settings are very collegial.

And I don't know if this is true of smaller companies, but when you go to a bigger company and work in-house, you have to get buy-ins from a lot of different parties because when you make a decision, it affects lots of different groups of people and so you have to socialize it with them, make sure they're okay with it - that was sometimes challenging for me. At a firm, it was mostly just providing your advice and you were done, but in-house you have to tell people what your advice is and convince them of why they should follow it and get them to agree. Rather than do your part and have it just be a portion of the larger picture, you work with more of an eye to the larger picture.

What was a highlight of your time practicing at a law firm? What about in-house?

At a firm, it was closing a big deal for a big public client because for some deals you may spend a month in the office on them basically. My highlight in-house was when I had to make a presentation for a committee of very senior executives and they told me I did well.

What have you noticed in terms of focus on pro-bono work at a firm versus in-house?

HPE is very committed to public service as were Fenwick and Pillsbury, so pro bono was considered very important in both realms in my experience.

Do you feel you have autonomy more autonomy working in-house versus at a firm?

I think you have more autonomy in-house because you're staffed a lot leaner. For example, in my case I'm the only attorney that does work in my practice area and so I think I have a lot of leeway, whereas at a firm, unless you're a partner there is always someone that you report to.

Can you speak of the structure or hierarchy and mobility in-house versus at a firm?

At a firm the path is pretty clear, you have associates, senior associates, and then depending on the firm, you either become counsel or partner or are asked to leave. I think at more and more at firms, you're seeing that if people want to stay and not be partner, it's okay. A lot of times they will find a role for you. Traditionally, I think it was either up or out.

In-house I feel it's a lot less clear, I think I can stay in this role forever and I think if I wanted a change, I could take a role in HR. I think it would be tougher for me to become General Counsel because I don’t really have business or litigation experienced. Because I don’t have broad-based experience, there is isn't a clear path directly up for me, but I might have flexibility to do HR or compensation work or another area in the legal group.

Grace Chen is a graduate of USC Gould School of Law and she advises her clients regarding executive compensation and benefits. She began her career in law with Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, working with Fenwick & West LLP thereafter and then at Hewlett Packard Enterprise shortly following its separation from HP in December 2015 through March 2016.