Building an In-House Career on a Big Law Foundation
Morgan Walbridge began her legal career as a “generalist” in the corporate department of McDermott’s New York office where she picked up the skills and perspective now critical to her work in-house for publicly traded companies.
Your most recent career move happened during the pandemic. What was that experience like?
I joined The AZEK Company, which manufactures high performance, low-maintenance and environmentally sustainable outdoor living and home exterior products, in February 2021 as Vice President and Deputy Chief Legal Officer. The company completed its initial public offering (IPO) in June of 2020, so it was an exciting time to join, but it was definitely more challenging starting a new role with no one in the office. I had to work harder to make those initial connections and build relationships at the company. It’s been nice lately as more and more people have been coming back to the office. Personally, I enjoy the spontaneous conversations and interactions with my colleagues, and I am looking forward to a time when we can all be back in the office without restriction.
Tell us about your current role.
As Deputy Chief Legal Counsel, I’m responsible for the day-to-day operations of the legal department and have two lawyers here that report to me. Because we have a fairly small legal department, I am involved in every aspect, from our US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) reporting obligations to contract management and compliance—the whole nine yards.
In-house, the business units of the company are my clients, and I work hard to make sure we, as a legal team, are supporting our business initiatives and mitigating risk for the company across many different functions. For example, we work closely with the finance and accounting teams on SEC reporting, with sales and procurement on contract management and with human resources on labor and employment issues.
As I’ve grown into more senior roles, I try to be more proactive and less reactive in anticipating the types of issues the company will face. I like to think of the legal department as more than a “check-the-box” function for the business. I believe the legal team adds the most value by identifying business solutions and, hopefully, contributing to company performance and efficiency overall.
Is there an initiative you’re particularly proud of?
At AZEK, I’m really proud of our commitment to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI). On the ESG front, we have committed to an ambitious goal of using one billion pounds of recycled material annually by the end of 2026. We diverted approximately 400 million pounds of scrap and waste from landfills with our production in 2020.
Certain products across our portfolio are made from 100% recycled material, and we are working to increase the amount of recycled content in our products each year. In turn, our products reduce reliance on trees for wood, have life spans that are significantly longer and are recyclable at the end of life. Knowing the serious environmental issues we’re facing globally, it’s nice to work for a company that is focused on doing our part.
How did your training at McDermott prepare you for your current role? When you left, what was the transition like?
McDermott is where I grew up as a lawyer, starting as a summer associate, and I remember my time there fondly. I believe in-house lawyers really benefit by starting out at a firm in order to build the foundational knowledge and skills necessary to do our job well. I had the opportunity to learn from the best at McDermott. I also had my first taste of representing public company clients, later encouraging my move in-house. I was particularly fortunate while at McDermott to work on a wide variety of issues and represent clients across a number of different industries. It was very beneficial to me when I went in-house to have had that broad range of experience.
Interestingly enough, it was a former McDermott colleague who offered me my first in-house role, changing the trajectory of my career. I will always be grateful for that, however, it was also bittersweet to leave McDermott—especially as my first employer coming out of law school. It made it easier how supportive everyone was when I made the decision to leave, and I’ve kept in touch with many of my old friends and colleagues from McDermott.
McDermott recently launched a virtual gathering place for current McDermott colleagues and alumni, Alumni Connect, with a global network directory, a robust job board and more resources to benefit our alumni. What does this mean for you, and how are you utilizing these resources?
Alumni Connect is a great idea—I am excited to take advantage of all it has to offer. When I was recently looking to hire another junior associate, McDermott was the first place I wanted to look because I know there’s so much great talent there. Some people naturally want to go in-house or pursue other opportunities, and I think it’s great that McDermott is willing to support them in that way. Alumni Connect makes that process easier and transparent, which I think is great.
It’s also a great way to stay in touch with partners at the Firm, help me meet my CLE requirements and get thought leadership on topics that help my company. I am excited to take advantage of these aspects of Alumni Connect as well, and the types of focused, topical subjects McDermott covers are of particular importance to in-house counsel.
You recently participated on a panel at the ACC-Chicago summit. What was the topic and what were the key takeaways?
The panel was called “A Year of Transition – The Workplace Changes that Keep General Counsels Up at Night,” so, as you might expect, a lot of the discussion centered on COVID-19. COVID-19 remains elusive and it’s an issue that no one has dealt with before, so companies are interested to hear how other companies are responding to this new, ever-evolving environment.
Most recently, companies with more than 100 employees, like AZEK, are working through the implications of the Biden administration’s COVID-19 mandate. Every company now has to decide whether or not to mandate the vaccine and, if not, how to put a testing process in place that’s effective and responsive to the regulation while also minimizing disruption and respecting the values and concerns of employees. The panel was a great opportunity for in-house counsel to bounce ideas around and try to understand how companies across the board are dealing with these issues.
Ironically, I think it’s COVID-19 that has helped me to sleep better at night. I have learned that if we can manage through a global pandemic that froze the economy, we can manage through almost anything.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I have two kids and a fairly high-stress job, so I won’t admit to having perfected work-life balance. I do try to make time for myself, and as part of that, I’m committed to finding time to exercise almost every day. It makes me feel healthier and relieves stress and anxiety, so I prioritize it and have become a huge Peloton fan during the pandemic. I also love to be outdoors and spend a lot of time on and around Lake Michigan, which is an incredible natural wonder that I am lucky enough to live near and make time to enjoy frequently.