Attorney talks 'professional experience of a lifetime' at a Fortune 500 firm

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Terry Larkin, after 28 years as a partner and business attorney with Bodman PLC, was tapped 12 years ago to be general counsel for Lear Corp., a Fortune 500 firm.

The employment offer was unexpected — and “intriguing,” he said.

Larkin, a 1979 graduate of Wayne State University Law School, went to work for Bodman soon after commencement. Lear was a client of the firm, and Larkin was very familiar with Lear’s legal matters. The Southfield-based company is a leading supplier of automotive seating and electrical components with approximately $21 billion in revenues.

In late 2007, Lear was looking for a new general counsel after the former person in the position was promoted to chief administrative officer.

“Dan Ninivaggi called me to ask my advice about the background and skills he should look for in a new general counsel,” Larkin said. “After talking for about an hour, he said, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t think of this before, but would you have any interest in the job?’ I was very happy practicing law at the Bodman firm and had never entertained the thought of doing something different with my career. But the professional opportunity to do something very different from what I had been doing for almost three decades was intriguing.

“I had little experience in international law and I thought that serving as general counsel of Lear, with operations in 39 countries around the world, surely would expand my horizons. After a lot of careful thought and discussion with my wife, I decided to leave my comfort zone and try something new. It has been the professional experience of a lifetime.”

Just a few years later, in 2009, Larkin met his greatest professional challenge with Lear, when the firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the midst of the Great Recession, which hit the auto industry especially hard.

“While no one likes to file for bankruptcy protection, we at Lear were determined that we would make the best of a tough situation,” he said. “Our CEO at the time tasked our CFO and me to lead the Lear team to negotiate a plan of reorganization that would protect the interests of as many stakeholders as possible.

“We are very proud that the plan of reorganization the Bankruptcy Court confirmed provided for the payment in full of all Lear’s trade creditors, honored completely all of Lear’s pension obligations, did not modify any of our collective bargaining contracts with our union partners, paid all our hourly and salaried employees in full and on time, did not impair any contracts with our customers or suppliers, and did not result in a disruption of the business of any of our customers. Moreover, the Lear team accomplished a complete Chapter 11 restructuring, from the date of filing the bankruptcy petition to the confirmation of the plan of reorganization, in just four months.

“We were told by our outside counsel and other bankruptcy advisors that the speed with which we completed the process is a record for a company of Lear’s size.”

Since then, Lear has gone to achieve record sales and earnings, he said.

Being a part of Lear’s business decisions, which affect the lives of approximately 170,000 employees and their families, is a privilege, Larkin said.

“There is an incredible sense of responsibility to make the best decision possible, and a tremendous satisfaction in knowing that you have played some small part in the success of a great American company,” he said.

Larkin always has been interested in the law and in business. He majored in finance at Michigan State University, and his favorite course at Wayne Law was business planning taught by Distinguished Professor Alan S. Schenk and the late Professor Stephen Schulman.

“They made the law come alive through their practical approach to teaching about business organizations,” Larkin said. “I also really enjoyed my time spent on the Wayne Law Review, including serving as a note and comment editor during my third year of law school. The law review experience helped to hone my research and writing skills.”

He advises law students aiming for careers as general counsel for a company to get a broad exposure to many areas of “substantive law.”

“To be an effective general counsel, you need to have a general understanding of most every area of the law imaginable,” Larkin said. “A general counsel’s responsibilities typically run the gamut from overseeing litigation, labor and employment, securities, mergers and acquisitions, commercial contracts, real estate and general corporate matters to working on strategy for the business. You do not necessarily need to be an expert in each area of the law.

“Rather, a general counsel usually is more of a generalist who can spot issues and interact effectively with the subject matter experts, whether they are in-house staff attorneys or outside counsel. A general counsel must be able to translate what the experts are saying in a way that the business’ leaders can use to inform their decision making.”

Larkin also uses his talents as chairman of the board of Life Directions, which awarded him its 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award for his longtime support of the group.

“Life Directions is a nonprofit organization that has been working to reduce violence among the youth of Detroit for over 44 years,” Larkin said. “They enlist successful high school students to mentor middle school students, not in academic studies, but in the social and emotional skills necessary to resolve conflicts without resorting to violence.

“This peer-to-peer approach has been very successful in reaching many at-risk youth in our community. I am honored to act currently as chairman of the board. Lear has been very supportive of my involvement with Life Directions both financially and in allowing me time to be involved personally.”

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