“The traits you need shift at different points in your career.”
Name: Rhonda E. Powell

Title: Chief Legal Officer and Corporate Secretary

Company: BuzzFeed, Inc.

BuzzFeed, Inc.

Sonya:  When did you first realize that you wanted to become an attorney? What first drew you to a career as an attorney? What do you enjoy most about your career now?

Rhonda: ​I realized that I wanted to become an attorney the year after I graduated from college. I’d taken a job in a management training program in the retail sector – starting off in the buying office – but after a few months I realized that I was not going to get the intellectual stimulation I was looking for from within the industry.  I was interested in the analytics around consumer behavior but not really interested moving products off the shelves myself.  So I started thinking about other careers that I might find more rewarding.  I almost went back to school for my doctorate in Sociology, my college major and a discipline that I absolutely love. I considered teaching as well, at the high school level.  But then one day I heard two attorneys speaking about a deal on the commuter train.  I could only understand bits and pieces of what they were saying and I thought “that’s like another language”.  I also thought about the historic injustice experience by many people of color in this country — not just African-Americans, but Native Americans, Asian Americans, the LatinX community as well. That injustice and disenfranchisement was so complete and effective because it was sanctioned by law. So if I was going to be part of dismantling a system that has subjugated African Americans from the birth of this nation, I had to understand everything about our form of governance and the legal system. Off to law school I went!

I enjoy most the opportunity to effect change, I’ve had the opportunity to build my own teams and have used it to demonstrate that not only can you have excellence in diversity, but that excellence requires diversity in all measures. In addition, I enjoy speaking to young lawyers and law students, particularly those of color, to share my path and help them chart theirs.  It’s always as much a learning experience for me as it is for them; I use the feedback I get from them to improve and extend my management skills at work.

Sonya: Have there been specific people (real or fictional) or pivotal situations/events that have inspired you, helped shape your career?

Rhonda: My father has always been an inspiring figure in my life; he always had the best advice and understood me on a very intuitive level from birth.  The best advice he gave me as a recent high school graduate was “Don’t peak early.” I didn’t quite get it at the time, but the older I get, the more I revisit it.  For some people, high school is the high point, but I still believe I’m just getting started.

Sonya: Are there particular traits that you believe successful attorneys share? Traits that you believe you have yourself and which you look for in hiring outside and in-house counsel? How about common traits you’ve observed in other successful GCs?

Rhonda: The traits you need shift at different points in your career. As a junior attorney, attention to detail and the ability to absorb large quantities of information are both key. As a person grows as an attorney and reaches the mid-level stage, I expect to see growth of confidence and an understanding of underlying principles that will enable him/her/them to solve a problem or address an issue even if you are not familiar with the industry or topic.  The ability to extrapolate from what you know, or skills you have and transfer them effectively to a different situation, industry or topic is important, particularly in-house.  The ability to act decisively and confidently on limited information is also key.  

At the senior or executive level, you have to be able to get out of the way and let your team shine.  You also have to be willing to hire people who know more than you do in various areas of the law.  Finally, the ability to inspire trust, develop and nurture your team is vital to your ultimate success as a GC.  These are the people who come through for you and the company over and over and over again.  You have to come through for them in providing opportunities, effective management and advocacy.

Sonya: What professional accomplishment are you most proud of? What would you like your legacy to be in your company/law department? In the legal profession?

Rhonda: I’m proud of starting my first CLO role at Complex Networks the year that I turned 50, and creating a strong and diverse team of lawyers and business affairs professionals.  I’m even prouder of making the move to BuzzFeed in late 2018 and doing it all over again! I want my legacy to be one of bringing together incredibly smart and talented people to do amazing work, but also one of advocating for my team and helping them develop into their best selves – whatever that means.  Finally, I want to be a constant example that committing to diversity and inclusion is not difficult, it is part of the commitment we all should be making every day to excellence in what we do. No company can truly reach its potential without a diverse workforce, and even those that we view as successful would be more successful if they had a workforce and  supplier chain that was truly reflective of the diversity that exists in American society.

Sonya: Have you had mentors/sponsors? Have you acted as a mentor/sponsor to others? Is mentorship/sponsorship important? How? Why?

Rhonda: I’ve had wonderful mentors and sponsors along the way, starting with my sixth grade teacher – Mrs. Blackman.  There are so many – I can say I am truly a blessed person. Mrs. Blackman was followed by Mrs. Wieland (my middle school Spanish teacher, high school counselor and first sponsor), Ms. Martino, Mr. Grimes, Mrs. Buckley, Mr. Meltzer – this was just high school!  Each of them added a piece to the puzzle.  The most important thing that they did was put me in a position to hit the ground running as a freshman at Harvard University, fully confident and secure that coming from a high school that was classified as being “inner city”, I was prepared to compete with students from the most elite high schools in the country.

As a lawyer, I’ve had many fellow lawyers who helped me start, grow and shape my career.  There are too many to list, and I’m so scared of leaving someone out that I’m reluctant to name names, but I have to mention Arnie Jacobs and Jack Jackson from Proskauer Rose (now Proskauer LLP), Carolyn Blankenship from Reuters and Pat Guy from Scripps Networks.  All of them were both mentors and sponsors. There are many non-lawyers who’ve played a pivotal role in my career and its trajectory as well, including several of my clients, particularly when I moved in-house.  Among that group, I have to acknowledge Michael Smith and Brooke Johnson, both of whom were integral to my success at Scripps Networks and beyond.

Sonya: Think about the legal profession over the course of the next ten years. What do you see as the big changes that are coming which you believe will most significantly impact the profession and the role of the GC/in-house legal department?

Rhonda: Technology has changed the practice of law and will continue to do so.  The truth is that even though computer processing speed will continue to increase, human processing speed – the time that it takes to consider a problem or issue and work one’s way through it – is not going to change much.  This creates real stressors for lawyers; clients don’t understand that just because they can send a document quickly it doesn’t mean that your attorney can review it and turn around comments in an hour.  The use of AI in contract development and/or review is also raising both ethical and legal questions that will need to get worked through.

Sonya: Describe a significant challenge you have faced in your life or career. How did you overcome it? What did you learn from it?

Rhonda: ​I had serious complications during pregnancy and nearly died at 36. It took me a year to fully recover, while trying to manage three children under the age of 4. What I learned from it was, each day, to point yourself in the direction you want to go and take a step. It may seem like you are making little or no progress on a day to day basis, but when you look back over the weeks and months, you’ll see how far you’ve come. That lesson applied to my recovery, but it also applies to my career and the way that I shaped it.

The other lesson I learned, which stems from the same experience, is to be willing to take a risk. It was a long way back for me and sometimes I pushed against the constraints that were being placed on me, both personally and professionally. Some people will gamble, play the lottery, etc. which involves to some extent putting your money in someone else’s hands. Any day of the week, I will bet on myself before betting on someone else. It’s the confidence to take the job that you only fulfill half of the skills requirements for, to turn down the job that’s just a repeat of something you’ve already done. It’s the ability to make decisions firm in the knowledge that you will survive and thrive no matter what the eventual outcome.

Sonya: What does Diversity & Inclusion mean to you? How important is D&I to you personally? As a GC? To your company/legal department? What advice do you have for GCs and others seeking to make a positive impact on the progress of D&I in their organizations and in the legal profession?

Rhonda: I’m referring you back to my earlier comments about how and why diversity and inclusion are both critical to business success, and a tentpole of my professional mission.

Sonya: If you were not General Counsel of your company (or of any company or even a lawyer at all), what career do you think you would most like to pursue?

Rhonda: This is easy. Actress – I have a background in musical theater.  I also have a tiny cookie company that I’ll give some TLC one day.

Sonya: Knowing what you know now about being a lawyer and a GC, if you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? At what point in your past would you give yourself that advice?

Rhonda: I would tell my younger self to trust her instincts and to feel comfortable going her own way in her own way.

Sonya: Tell me something fun about yourself. A personal skill or hobby that, while not directly related to your day job, you feel makes you more well-rounded, helps you be better at your day job and/or helps relax and focus you to do your job as a GC better.

Rhonda: ​I won a tiny cookie company.  I love to bake.  I enjoy the precision and constancy of baking and the silence of the process; it creates balance for me against the ever changing, highly interactive nature of my job.

Sonya: Hashtag/Brand yourself in 5 words or less (For example, mine is #SelfiesWithSonya )

Rhonda: #AlwaysReinventingRhonda