“The road to GC has been long and not without its challenges. However, I’ve learned so much through the years about professionalism, leadership, sponsorship and mentorship.”
Name: Brian W. Ellis

Title: Senior Vice President & General Counsel

Company: Danaher Corporation

Danaher Corporation
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?

Brian: ​ I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 9 years old. I don’t have any clue why that was so. I had no lawyers in my family or family circles, so I had no archetype from which to draw upon. Perhaps, it was because my teachers told me that I would make a great lawyer as I was most convincing when I tried to talk my way out of trouble.  

​Reading about Thurgood Marshall’s and the NAACP legal defense fund’s heroic efforts in the Civil Rights movement provided the motivation and audacity to dream of being able to effect meaningful change as a lawyer.

The road to GC has been long and not without its challenges. However, I’ve learned so much through the years about professionalism, leadership, sponsorship and mentorship. What I enjoy most is helping others realize their career potential. I mentor many lawyers and non-lawyers. When I see my mentees succeed, it really means the world to me.

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

Brian: Absolutely! In my early/formative legal years, I had a named partner take me under his wing, teach me, mentor me and nurture me.  In my later years, I have been blessed to have giants in our legal community as my boss, mentor and co-pilots. In this profession, you need to be able to call upon other more seasoned GCs to tap into their experiences and wisdom. I am fortunate to have two former GC bosses and non-lawyer C-Suite executives whom I call upon regularly for advice, counsel and spiritual guidance.

​I have at least one major experience that shaped my career. As a newly minted partner, my firm closed and went through bankruptcy proceedings. I saw first-hand the good and bad of individuals in times of crisis.  Sadly, people whom I believed were men and women of integrity demonstrated the opposite. I saw lawyers completely devastated emotionally and panicked because they were ill-prepared to survive on their own talents.  Furthermore, I saw non-lawyer staff perform their jobs with grace even though their financial wherewithal was in jeopardy and employment options were less attractive than the lawyers whose malfeasance caused the firm’s collapse.

​From that experience, I’ve learned that resolve isn’t something that I was born with; it’s what I gained riding through tough times and staying faithful and focused. That resolve helped me endure the ups and downs of a legal career and to push against the odds to reach my goal of becoming a public company GC.

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?

Brian: Integrity, candor and humility. I try to demonstrate those traits in leading my teams; hiring in and outside counsel.  

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?

Brian: I am most proud of the many lawyers and non-lawyers whom I have had the privilege of mentoring and sponsoring. To provide meaningful professional and personal counsel to someone and to stand witness to their growth and success is truly rewarding. 

I hope my legacy in my company is that I stood for positive change, growth and development of people and fairness. I think that legacy would be good enough for the legal profession too.

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

Brian: I have had both mentors and sponsors throughout my career. In order to succeed and do well I think you need both. A mentor is someone who can answer questions that you don’t feel comfortable asking anyone else for fear that you will be judged. A sponsor is critical to your success as this person is your advocate and vocal supporter who can help you get recognition for your achievements as you pursue your career goals – whether it be to make partner, or advance within your in-house corporate department.

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?

Brian: I’m hopeful that there will be more diverse GCs that will insist on greater equality and representation of diverse lawyers within law firms.  We need more real change agents (diverse/non-diverse) in GC roles to truly make meaningful progress.  I don’t see any major changes coming to the role of the GC/in-house departments.  We will always be resource challenged and strongly encouraged to leverage technology to better perform our jobs.  This isn’t new and it isn’t going away.

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

Brian: ​I was passed over for a GC job that I firmly believed I was qualified.  It really hurt because many of my peers were very supportive and disappointed when I did not get the role.  I simply realized that for whatever reason this wasn’t the job for me.  I had to put my head down, continue to execute and ready myself for the opportunity if it presented.  I learned that things don’t always happen when you think you deserve it, they happen when it’s time.  I can’t control it.  I can just be ready.

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?

Brian: ​D&I is not a constant thing.  You don’t ever master D&I.  However, we must be willing to accept that and dedicate ourselves to continuous improvement.  D&I efforts are very visible at my company.  For the functions I lead, I have had D&I facilitators help unpack concepts, explore needs and help develop action plans.  More practical steps include requiring diverse slates for all hiring opportunities.  This is very easy to do and implement.  You can make real progress by simply requiring diverse slates.

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?

Brian: College basketball coach

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?

Brian: I would tell myself to never pass-up a moment to spend precious time with a loved-one.  You can always find time to do more on the job, but you can’t ever recover a lost opportunity to spend precious time with someone you love.

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.

Brian:  ​I love to play golf.  Golf makes me realize that there’s no such thing as perfection.  You can be a scratch golfer, and you still aren’t good enough to be the best of the best.  So, I embrace being good enough for me.  I try to apply that same thinking to my approach to work.  I know I’m not a perfect lawyer, but I try to do the very best I can every day…and that’s good enough for me.

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

Brian: #trulygrateful