William Root didn’t intentionally assemble a wide skill set that has made him an invaluable in-house attorney, it just played out that way. The associate general counsel for Genesis HealthCare grew up in big firms but moved into progressively more complex in-house legal roles that have required the lawyer to grow his legal toolbox in unexpected ways.
Root started his in-house career in litigation, but as new opportunities presented themselves, he began branching out into regulatory, compliance, and internal investigations. “I think, personally, that you’re a more effective leader when you have a diverse skill set,” Root explains. “You’re able to provide better and broader advice, and you can approach an issue from any number of different perspectives.” At Genesis, Root has also taken on government investigations, applying his accumulated experiences into an even more agile legal advisor.
By displaying a willingness to grow into new legal areas, Root has identified what he considers are essential qualities for an effective in-house partner to maintain: the tools of the toolbox, as it were.
“When you boil it down, you just have to know your audience,” Root says. “The person you’re speaking with, the level they’re at, and the questions or reactions they may have all come in to play, so you have to work to understand the differing viewpoints of the people you’re working with.” Root amassed a broad range of global experience while working at AstraZeneca and says that in many of those cases, understanding culture also plays a pivotal role in working to appreciate both motivation and perspective.
“The way people respond to being questioned if you’re doing an investigation can vary significantly based on the country you may be working in,” Root says. “Whatever you’re investigating may be seen as more permissible in a certain country than it would be seen in the US.”
“After you’ve worked to understand who you’re talking to, you have to be able to actually put those thoughts into practice,” Root explains. “That analysis that goes through your head is important, but so is being able to clearly and respectfully have a dialogue there, whether verbally or in writing.”
While emotional intelligence and communication could be seen as two peas of the same pod, Root says differentiating and improving both capabilities will only be beneficial in the long run for an effective in-house lawyer.
Preparedness and Decisiveness
“A lot of teams in-house deal with a variety of issues that can pop up immediately,” Root says. “You don’t always have time to actually prepare for whatever may happen, and you have to react on the fly.” The key, then, is to continually make sure that processes, practices, and education are in place that can help provide a framework for navigating difficult issues. “A lot of times you are anticipating what may be on the horizon, and you can prepare for those emergencies in a coordinated and logical fashion,” Root says.
The AGC says that is especially true for in-house counsel, who are more often fighting fires than those in the firm world. “An essential part of dealing with those situations is predicting and preparing as much as possible for what may come and being able to react decisively because you’ve prepared for that moment.”
Breaking the Stereotype
“Lawyers aren’t always known as the most tech-savvy of people,” Root says, laughing. “But it has always been important for me to find ways to use technology to improve legal practice.” He was quick to implement predictive coding for litigation, technology that gave way to AI capabilities. Root has also pushed for expanded and enhanced e-billing, a less glamorous application of technology, perhaps, but one that pays off big both in savings and efficiency.
All of these tools are great on their own, but Root says wielding these in concert is where real leadership happens. “The goal is to engage and find ways to positively impact your clients,” he says. “When you get that, you have built trust and, more importantly, a relationship that will continue to grow and develop.”
William Root has built an effective in-house career by engaging his clients and continuing to widen his skill set. That skill set, at least since law school, has been in service of human clients. But while in law school, Root authored “Man’s Best Friend: Property or Family Member–An Examination of the Legal Classification of Companion Animals and Its Impact on Damages Recoverable for Their Wrongful Death or Injury” for the Villanova Law Review, an article he didn’t think would get published, let alone have the effect that it did.
“That article has been cited in subsequent publications and even legal cases,” Root says. “Further, over the years, I have been contacted by the media, attorneys, and legal scholars regarding the substance of the article. The article has truly had a meaningful impact regarding how companion animals are valued pursuant to the law.”