A Conversation with Alum Rick Sharma
We recently caught up with former Stroock lawyer Rick Sharma, now Chief Legal Advisor at hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, which manages assets for many of the world’s largest institutional investors. Rick discussed his current role as well as many lessons he learned as a Stroock associate, in the army and as a government lawyer. He talked about the challenges and benefits of working in-house, gave clear guidance on what outside counsel can do to better serve corporate clients and shared career advice for new lawyers.
Q: Tell me about your time at Stroock. What did you like most about working at the firm?RS: Actually, I had two stints at Stroock. My first job as a lawyer out of law school was at Stroock. It’s where I learned the ropes as a junior associate and then came back as a senior associate after serving on active duty as an Army JAG. What I liked most at the firm were the people and how much I was able to deeply interact with experienced and accomplished partners. At the time, we typically staffed matters leanly – usually a lead partner, a senior associate and a junior associate. That model enabled the associates to be involved with a critical seat at the table at every step in a case. I had the opportunity to work with, watch and learn from incredible lawyers like Chuck Moerdler, Brian Cogan, the late Joe Forstadt, Jamie Bernard, Mel Brosterman and Kevin Smith. Each of them was in many ways very different from the others, with their own approaches, demeanor, tactics and superpowers. I feel like I got an arrow in my quiver from each of them that I could channel throughout my career, as needed.
Also, almost everyone in our department had a great sense of humor. No matter how hard we worked or how difficult a matter was, there was always time to reflect on it, laugh about the challenges and see the bright side of things. So it was a great community and a motivating, fun work environment.
Q: You’ve had a really well-rounded career serving as an Army JAG and Civil Affairs Officer, working as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney at DOJ and as a Stroock associate before pivoting to in-house work at asset managers. What life lessons, especially from military service, have proved most helpful to you?
RS: When I went on active duty in 1999, it was very much a peacetime army. Then two years in, the September 11th attacks took place and we quickly shifted to a wartime army. That really gave me insights into crisis management and, importantly, how people and organizations handle crises. I learned important lessons about building durability to approach the unknown. The perspective you gain when you face situations when soldiers’ lives are on the line enables you to approach problems thoughtfully, critically and calmly. The military also taught me about building the right team to get a job done. I learned that those you surround yourself with make a tremendous difference and are usually the key drivers of your success or failure.
Q: What can you tell me about Bridgewater Associates and your role there?
RS: Bridgewater Associates is a global macro asset management firm driven by its pursuit to understand how the world’s markets and economies work better than anyone else. We manage assets for the most sophisticated and largest institutional investors in the world. We have 30 employees in our legal regulatory group, around half of which are attorneys, and I help manage that team, particularly with respect to legal matters touching our investment advisory practices. Although we don’t have a lot of litigation, in the last year, I have also taken on managing our dispute resolution work, and increasingly I’ve been focused on enterprise risk management and cybersecurity work.
Recently, I’ve been spending time thinking about what we can expect in terms of the technology of the future, how we will interact with that technology, and how that will impact markets and our business. We strive to be a legal department that sees around the corners, anticipating changes to the business and our industry in a systematic way, and continuously rethinking and refining our approach so that we will be well prepared for the legal implications of what is ahead.
Q: What do you like most about your job?
RS: We have a unique culture at Bridgewater based on radical truth and transparency. It’s a meritocracy where we work toward bringing forth and developing the best ideas, no matter from whom they may come. We say exactly what we think, encourage everyone to speak up, and don’t tolerate office politics or talking behind people’s backs. All voices are heard and ideas considered with the goal of arriving at the best solutions. It’s actually the direct opposite approach from the military, and much better suited to what I’m like.
Q: Well you must have experienced quite a culture shock then.
RS: It took some getting used to, but I found that in the investment management world, Bridgewater’s approach works best to get great ideas. We challenge each other constantly and, since you don’t know where the best ideas will come from, we remain vigilantly open-minded to different approaches and are conscious of what we may be missing. In the legal department, we have the same approach. We’ve been in business for over 40 years so most of the easy legal questions have already been asked and answered. So, most of the issues that come our way are often novel and complex. For those instances, it is particularly important to have a culture of meaningful relationships, deep trust and a safe and encouraging place for fostering new ideas, which we strive for. At the same time, we encourage respectful disagreement, open-mindedness and the exchange of ideas to get a better understanding of the facts and, inevitably, make the best decisions.
Q: How about the challenges you face?
RS: At Bridgewater, we have world-class technology for understanding the markets, building portfolios and working with our clients. But one challenge is finding the best way to optimize technology to enhance our legal and regulatory work. We want to renovate, innovate and integrate technology into our legal and regulatory practice. Lawyers who understand the technology and how it can be used to improve the delivery of legal services are essential in evaluating, selecting, integrating and utilizing the right technology to improve our department’s efficiency.
Q: What surprised you when you went in-house and what proved to be most difficult in transitioning from private practice to corporate?
RS: I’m sure that different folks have different experiences, but for me, it was going from a world where you feel you have to do it all to a world where you need to leverage the talent of others to get the job done. It’s hard to let go of some of that control. There is simply too much to do by yourself, so you leverage those in trusted outside relationships to fill the gaps. You are also responsible in a more direct way for making the right decisions. At a law firm, you advise the client. When you’re in-house you have to actually make the hard decisions. Business outcomes and your reputation are on the line with each decision you make. Also, working as in-house counsel, you have just one client, your employer. Gaining a deep knowledge and understanding of its business, its goals and its culture are essential to earn respect and be able to make the right decisions from both legal and business perspectives.
On top of all that, you need to anticipate what may be coming and keep problems from happening as opposed to just solving the problem at hand. You have to look around corners and spend a great deal of time on risk management and prevention.
Q: I understand that Jim Comey was your boss when you started at Bridgewater. How was that?
RS: He hired me but then left less than a year after I got there. That was a disappointment for me – Jim is a talented lawyer, a great mentor and a good-humored and engaging colleague, and I am proud to call him a friend. But in the end, his departure turned into a wonderful challenge and opportunity for those of us who were in senior legal roles. There isn’t a lot of redundancy in-house so when somebody leaves you need the flexibility to move laterally and vertically and take on their responsibilities, at least until someone else can be hired to take over the role. So, immediately after his transition, several of us had the opportunity to step up and get exposure to top management at the company.
Q: How did COVID-19 work-from-home orders impact your role, compliance efforts, risk avoidance and governance concerns?
RS: There were challenges at both work and personal levels. We focused on people first, viewing it as a personal crisis and seeing to it that our people and their loved ones had what they needed on a personal level. Employees will look to you as a leader based on how you handle what’s important to them in a crisis situation. We shut down the offices earlier than almost any company in our region and industry as a preventative measure based on the recommendations of some of our people with medical and infectious disease backgrounds who recognized the risks.
We needed agility and flexibility to adapt so we wouldn’t get locked into a plan if reality changed. We were fortunate to have great infrastructure to enable people to transition to working at home seamlessly. It was pretty amazing because we didn’t have people working from home before that. We also had to deal with whether our vendors and service providers were prepared for the shutdown. Could we be confident in their security measures? Would our trading information be secure? We had to understand the new reality and make necessary adjustments.
Q: What can outside counsel do to make the job of in-house counsel and other corporate leaders easier?
RS: Three things come to mind. First, be sensitive, mindful, clear, flexible and creative regarding budgets. Talk to clients upfront about costs. We don’t like surprise bills. At this point, outside counsel should be proposing alternative fee arrangements as a matter of course.
Second, as I mentioned, in-house teams are typically lean. So, if we lose someone in-house, we’d like to be able to rely on outside counsel to step in and fill the role temporarily at cost or “cost plus.” That shouldn’t be a hard conversation, but it still is. I believe secondments are a win-win-win for the attorney, the law firm, and the client. We get to know each other better, build trust, develop an associate lawyer and fill a need. The lawyer also gets to demonstrate commitment, build stronger relationships with the in-house people and swim daily in our business and the challenges we face.
The third thing is about security and security processes. We need to have supreme confidence that outside counsel is maintaining confidentiality and has appropriate security measures in place. Counsel should be proactive in telling us about how they’re keeping our information secure. We shouldn’t have to ask about it.
Q: What words of wisdom do you have for newer lawyers regarding their careers?
RS: I always recommend that they go to a large law firm like Stroock to start their career, where they’re going to get an experience very different from what they’d get in-house in a legal department. I don’t think you can get better training than by spending a few years with the best of the best, working with many different clients and businesses, learning about what you’re good at and what you need to work on, managing a team, and learning how to be a leader. Those experiences were invaluable to me for building a legal career.
I also feel very strongly about public service and giving back. It’s important to make sure our system of justice works well and is accessible for all. Public service also teaches you how to work with far less in terms of resources, you get to contribute to a greater good and you learn to be more humble—all while making a difference.