Longtime general counsel of Ford Motor Company discusses career

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By Zachary Witus
U-M Law

Former Ford Motor Company General Counsel David Leitch recently spoke at the University of Michigan Law School about what an in-house counsel of a top multinational company does, as well as his work as chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration on Sept. 11, 2001, and as deputy counsel to President George W. Bush.

"When I was in law school, I didn't meet general counsels. When I was a young practicing lawyer, I never really thought about what general counsels at the top Fortune 10 companies were doing," Leitch told students at the Nov. 9 talk, which was presented by the Business Law Association.

Leitch was named global general counsel of Bank of America earlier this month.

One big portion of his work at Ford was managing litigation. Leitch said that, at any given moment, between 8,000 to 10,000 lawsuits are pending against Ford, and that about 90 percent of those are asbestos cases, which he said were mostly unfounded.

He also discussed class-action lawsuits involving commercial disputes.

He recalled one $2 billion judgment against Ford in an Ohio class-action lawsuit brought by a group of truck dealers.

"That was probably the only day of my tenure as Ford general counsel when I got a call from Bill Ford [executive chairman of Ford] asking me about the stock price," Leitch said.

(Leitch and his team eventually had that initial judgment overturned in the Ohio Court of Appeals.)

One student in the audience asked: "How would a young law school graduate go about getting a job in-house?"

Leitch said that not many companies would hire in-house lawyers straight from law school. "It's still very unusual," Leitch said.

But at Ford, he noted, there are ways to acquire in-house jobs early in one's law career. For example, Ford has had a small program for summer associates for decades.

"We've hired people for the past three or four years straight out of that program," Leitch said.

"Go back 30 years, we were doing the same thing. Some of my most senior lawyers started at Ford as summer associates, came to Ford right after law school, and have been there for 30 years."

Ford had to suspend the program during the financial crisis, but they've since reinstated it.

Leitch also spoke about situations in which a general counsel should speak up about someone in the company doing something wrong or unethical.

"I think you have to speak up. I think you have to lead there if you're in the room," he said.

He shared an anecdote regarding a vehicle recall. Ford had decided on a Friday that it had a defective product and would need to announce the recall. Legally, Ford could have waited until the following Wednesday to announce the recall. But in the particular case at issue, there was some risk that a serious event could happen immediately, and the Ford team decided it had an ethical responsibility to announce the recall as soon as possible.

Once the company determined how quickly it could act, Ford ended up announcing the recall later that day.

While a lawyer could simply give the legal advice that the company had five days to act, Leitch said, a true counselor would be willing to weigh in on the ethical question as well.

In regard to the ongoing emissions scandal at Volkswagen, Leitch pointed out the difficulty of "driving an ethical culture through a corporation that has about 500,000 employees.

"It matters a lot what kind of leaders you have in a company," Leitch said.

"The employees look to the top. And you can drive cultural change at a company by the way the leaders conduct themselves."

Leitch received his undergraduate degree from Duke University, and is a graduate of the University of Virginia School of Law, where he graduated first in his class.

His law career includes serving as law clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, as a law clerk to Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, III, and as a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Hogan & Hartson, L.L.P. (now Hogan Lovells).

Published: Mon, Dec 21, 2015

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