Podcast: Alumni @ RopesTalk: Conversation with Jeff Gleason, Delaware North
We are pleased to introduce a new podcast series, Alumni @ RopesTalk, for our alumni interviews. Today’s podcast features Ropes & Gray alum Jeff Gleason in conversation with IP litigation partner Matt Rizzolo. Jeff and Matt were summer associates together back in 2007, and have stayed in touch over the years since Jeff left the firm to go in-house. Most recently, Jeff joined Delaware North, a global leader in hospitality and food services management, as assistant general counsel for gaming. Jeff discusses the challenges associated with moving in-house and offers advice to attorneys who may be looking to make the transition. Additionally, Jeff and Matt reminisce about their early days at Ropes & Gray. Tune in to hear more!
Matt Rizzolo: Thanks for joining us on our very first Ropes & Gray alumni podcast. I'm Matt Rizzolo, an IP litigation partner based in our Washington, D.C. office. Today I'm being joined by my friend and Ropes & Gray alum, Jeff Gleason. Jeff and I were summer associates together back in 2007, and he then began his career in the Boston office. Now Jeff is an assistant general counsel for gaming at Delaware North, a global leader in hospitality and food service management, which operates in the lodging, sporting, airport, gaming and entertainment industries. In this podcast, we'll be talking about Jeff's tasks through his current position, the differences between law firm and in-house life, and maybe even a trip down memory lane to try and jog up some of his favorite memories of Ropes & Gray. So Jeff, thanks for being our guinea pig here. Let's get started with an easy question for you. Can you tell us a little bit about Delaware North and what you do there?
Jeff Gleason: Sure. So you know, as you said, Matt, Delaware North is mostly a hospitality company – we sell experiences. We have several subsidiaries. One which does sports service – that's basically being a concessionaire at MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL stadiums. We have a travel and hospitality subsidiary, which does similar food-service things at airports. We have a parks and resorts subsidiary, which owns some properties as well as manages things like Kennedy Space Center down in Florida. We have Patina Restaurant Group, which owns a string of restaurants and also manages food service operations for things like the Metropolitan Opera and Rockefeller Center. And then we have our Boston subsidiary, which owns the TD Garden, where the Celtics and Bruins play. Our chairman, Mr. Jacobs, owns the Bruins personally. And then we have an international portfolio, where we do similar types of businesses in England, Australia and Singapore. And then we have the gaming division, which is my charge here at Delaware North. I handle all the legal for our portfolio of casinos and racetracks. So all across the company, like I said at the beginning, we're selling experiences. We're selling customers a good time, so it's kind of a fun company to work for because that's basically our focus, is hospitality for our customers.
Matt Rizzolo: So how did you end up in your current job as gaming counsel? Did you have a background in that industry beforehand?
Jeff Gleason: Not at all. In fact, I had done absolutely zero gaming work. I had not even worked in too many highly regulated fields. Delaware North is based in Buffalo – that's where our headquarters is. And they were out looking for an assistant general counsel, effectively a partner-level person who could join the team, and they weren't really looking for someone who had been in gaming their whole career. The company has a pretty robust growth trajectory – they have set pretty substantial goals for that growth, and so they were looking for someone who had a kind of M&A bent to them. And you know, they are an acquisitive company, especially in gaming – they're always looking for new assets to purchase, new casinos to run, racetracks to buy up and generate additional revenue and EBITDA. So that's kind of where I came in. My father-in-law, who's a general counsel for a healthcare center here in Buffalo, got notice of the job posting and sent it to me immediately and said, "You need to apply for this job," so I did. I have a background with the deputy general counsel here – we had worked on several different private equity investment transactions for the same client, though we were at different firms, when he was out in private life. And the rest, as they say, is history. I got the job and started in April of last year.
Matt Rizzolo: It sounds like you owe your father-in-law a debt you must repay, huh? You worked at a couple of firms, at Ropes and then a couple of others. What was the most challenging thing about going in-house from a firm?
Jeff Gleason: Sure. So I mean, especially at Ropes, and then definitely as I went to smaller firms, I was still very much a specialized practitioner. When I was at Ropes, I did mostly private equity, did some public company, but all M&A-focused. And then even when I came back to Buffalo, I was doing a general corporate practice, sure, but most of it was focused on M&A, as well. And so when clients would call us up, and call me up particularly, they're looking for a pretty narrow range of guidance. You know, they've kind of honed what they're looking to ask of you, they know they're paying by the hour, and so they've come to you with a pretty narrow question, usually. Going to in-house, they're not paying by the hour anymore, and so a lot of those clients too, they're not used to honing their questions because normally when we're in law firms, you're hearing from higher-level persons who have gathered input from their employees for whatever purpose they need legal guidance and they're sending it to you. Here, I'm getting questions from all levels of our operation and they're not necessarily honed or particularly focused on what I do. A lot of times it's not even really legal questions, but they're just looking for someone who can help them talk through something. And that's the biggest change – you're going from somebody coming to you for a very specific set of skills that you have to someone, to a group of clients who are coming to you for almost everything.
Matt Rizzolo: Really putting the "general" in general counsel," so to speak, huh?
Jeff Gleason: Absolutely, absolutely. You know, I've looked at all kinds of different agreements that I would never look at when I was in a law firm. I've provided guidance on things that I never would've provided guidance on when I was just an M&A lawyer.
Matt Rizzolo: So now that you're in-house, what advice do you have for outside counsel who are looking to get business from you or from your company?
Jeff Gleason: You know, the biggest thing for me is efficiency. Again, we're fielding questions and issues from our internal clients in such a broad spectrum that when we're going to outside counsel, we've provided that funnel. We've kind of honed that down to a narrow set of issues that we're coming to outside counsel for and so we're dealing with the whole slew of day-to-day questions. And we really need help on that specific thing that we're reaching out for specialized knowledge of, and the efficiency of answering that so that we can continue to deal with the broad spectrum of things that we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis is really important. The other thing is timeliness of response. I can't tell you the number of times that I get frustrated with not receiving a response from outside counsel. And a lot of it is a generational thing – a lot of it is a regional vs. a national firm issue, but Matt, you and I came up in the “check your emails” days and you had to respond quickly. And it's also a communication manner that we're more used to – email has almost become the instant messenger of the world, and so when I don't get a response within 24 hours, it gets really frustrating.
Matt Rizzolo: Yes, that's understandable. So what about advice for folks who might want to be moving in-house someday, whether they're junior associates just starting out, or mid-levels, or even partner levels?
Jeff Gleason: So you know, when I was a junior lawyer, I was a third-year associate or so, and started to look at opportunities for in-house jobs. One of the things that you have to think about is not every business, even if it's a very large business, has a legal department that can support having very junior lawyers. So just saying, "Well, you know, Delaware North is a huge business – they've got to have a spot for me as a third-year attorney," that's not necessarily true. Our legal department is actually very thinly staffed for the size of company we are and so we have two junior lawyers who are not AGCs – other than that, it's all AGCs, a deputy GC and a GC, and so there aren't a whole lot of places to slot those junior associates in. So don't necessarily equate size of the company with the ability to support junior lawyers when you're a junior lawyer. The other thing that I would say is when you're looking at in-house positions, don't necessarily say, "Oh, well, I'm just an M&A attorney – I can't possibly do a gaming job." We just discussed I didn't have any gaming experience before coming into Delaware North and so I said, "Well, I have a particular set of skills of representing my client and advocating for a position and negotiation, and those are applicable across a lot of different fields, more so than just M&A.” Yes, I had done employment agreements before – we had dealt with different kinds of labor issues and employee benefits issues and tax issues. And I wasn't a tax attorney or an employee benefits attorney, but I knew enough of those things to kind of use those abilities and apply them to a job that was outside of my specialized area. So you know, even if you're a litigation attorney, don't necessarily think you're not qualified for a corporate in-house job.
Matt Rizzolo: That's interesting. I've heard some in-house folks talk about looking to recruit athletes. I know you're a sports guy, and you know, sometimes you might be looking for just the offensive guard, but sometimes you're just looking for the best player available who you can slot in somewhere. And do you think that sort of applies when hiring for in-house positions sometimes? You're just looking for someone who can be a good member of the team and apply their skills across a wide variety of areas?
Jeff Gleason: Absolutely. You know, we have a couple open positions now, and we were interviewing candidates for one of our counsel positions, so one of the support positions beneath the assistant general counsels. And you have that job description – you're looking for someone with five to seven years of broad corporate experience, and that'd be great if that person comes through the door. But if somebody comes through the door and they have eight years of bankruptcy experience, or they have an extended career of doing things outside of just traditional corporate work, or if they have four years but in their four years they were at a pretty small firm and they're actually running deals at four years out of law school, as atypical as that is, that kind of person can fit in that role. And in fact, when we did those interviews, the person that we selected or we all agree we should make an offer to was completely outside of what we had formed the description of that role for.
Matt Rizzolo: Very interesting. So turning back to your time at Ropes, I mean, how do you think your time at Ropes has prepared you for your current position?
Jeff Gleason: I mean, certainly there was a broad set of skills that I gained from doing transactional work at Ropes. You know, the other thing that I did at Ropes which was different than my corporate work when I came back to Buffalo was the varying industries we did transactions in. Each deal, you learned about a new industry – it wasn't the same kind of company over and over and over again, which was more typical of my practice back here in Buffalo, but there were a number of deals that I worked on, from medical device companies, consumer products, beverage companies. You'd walk into Chris Comeau’s or Paul Van Houten’s offices and look at their deal toys, and you'll see the different kinds of companies we worked for and did deals for. And learning the different industry is incredibly important to being able to do effective work for that client. So, you know again, that helped in coming into a company that did something that I never had experience doing – gaming, again, not something I did, so that certainly helped. The other thing that helps is now that I'm at a company of this size, we do deals with a lot of firms that are Ropes' size, on deals or on any kind of outside counsel representation. So being able to know how those firms work is certainly helpful. And being able to deal with a firm that has offices all over the place and your deal team might be scattered, or knowing that, "Hey, I can lean on this firm for a particular set of skills that a lot of firms this size have, but you know, Ropes is really good in IP, and so we have a pretty tricky IP question here, so I'm going to call up Ropes." And only being in big law do you kind of learn those specialized things about those larger firms.
Matt Rizzolo: Got it. So you mentioned Chris and Paul. Were there any attorneys at the firm who really stood out as influences on your career early on?
Jeff Gleason: Yes. Certainly Chris Comeau – he was my mentor when I was a summer associate, and then when I came to Boston, I worked with him all the time. Keith Higgins was another guy who after I left Ropes, he left Ropes for the SEC, and I think he's back now. But you know, Keith is an incredible negotiator. I remember a deal that we did where it was Friday before Memorial Day weekend and we're on a call in the middle of an auction process trying to nail down this deal, and Keith's skill at negotiating was just completely evident, and I knew then to watch every move that he made. So those two I think were particularly formative in my early development of my skills as a corporate attorney.
Matt Rizzolo: That's great. Any favorite Ropes memories that you can think of?
Jeff Gleason: Our summer – you mentioned that we were summers in 2007, which was kind of the last big summer class before the financial crisis happened in 2008 and everybody kind of tightened their belts a little bit more. You know, our summer was great. One of the reasons why I came to Ropes was the ability to split my summer between Boston and New York, so that experience is very memorable – spending time in Boston and meeting the people there and then spending six weeks in New York and having a different working environment, getting to know a different set of summer associates, a different set of colleagues. When we started in September of 2008, it created a greater field of people that I could lean on for support as we all sat wide-eyed when Brad Malt walked into our orientation and said, "Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy today. Everything's going to change."
Matt Rizzolo: I recall that well.
Jeff Gleason: Yes, so you know, that's one of those memories I will never forget. It's our first day of being real lawyers and I'm a corporate attorney and, "Oh, guess what? The bottom just fell out of the economy." So those were definitely great memories and something that I always recall. I always bring up our first day, and Brad making that announcement.
Matt Rizzolo: For sure. So we're getting close to the end. I want to end with a lightning round, some fill-in-the-blank questions for you. You ready?
Jeff Gleason: Sure, sure.
Matt Rizzolo: All right. My favorite sports team is?
Jeff Gleason: Buffalo Bills.
Matt Rizzolo: Of course. My ideal Friday night is spent?
Jeff Gleason: Oh. At a nice dinner, and then, you know, having some good craft beer afterwards.
Matt Rizzolo: If I wasn't a practicing attorney, I'd be?
Jeff Gleason: A bartender.
Matt Rizzolo: If someone handed me $25 million today, I would?
Jeff Gleason: Be a bartender.
Matt Rizzolo: Ropes & Gray is?
Jeff Gleason: A great place to work. A great place to start your career.
Matt Rizzolo: All right, I think that's a fantastic way to close out. So Jeff, thanks very much for joining me today. It’s always interesting to see how Ropes & Gray alums end up where they are. So for all of our Ropes & Gray alumni out there, please visit our alumni website at alumni.ropesgray.com to stay up-to-date on our alumni, as well as the latest news about the firm and our lawyers. Thank you all for listening.