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April 5, 2022

Alumni Spotlight Interview

Stroock recently caught up with firm alumni Robin Elkowitz, now Executive Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Secretary for Citizens Financial Group, Inc. (NYSE: CFG). In the interview that followed, Robin spoke on her swift move in-house, the lessons that helped her succeed and how she’s advocating for women in the workplace. She also shared some practical career advice for newer lawyers.

Tell me about your time at Stroock. What brought you to Stroock and what did you enjoy most about working at the firm?

I chose to go to Stroock right out of law school. I had a lot of firms to choose from and the thing that struck me most at Stroock was the people that I met when interviewing there. They really drew me to the firm. Joining Stroock proved to be a good decision. It was a great learning experience.

I always joke that law school prepares you to be a great Supreme Court Justice, but that it really doesn’t teach you much about the practicalities of law practice. I got to learn those practicalities in my time at Stroock. My strong business, financial and accounting background led me to become a part of the firm’s Corporate Department, primarily in the Asset-Backed Finance Group. I really got to learn how to apply my background in those areas to my legal practice so that was a great building block for me as I moved forward in my career.

I noticed that you are both a CPA and an attorney. Did you have a career game plan in mind?

I did not ever plan to be an accountant. In college, I majored in accounting and finance and as a senior, I was advised to take the CPA exam because I had completed all the necessary accounting and financial coursework. So, I took and passed the CPA exam. I figured you never know when you might need that, and I certainly have no regrets about doing so. My finance and accounting background proved to be very helpful in law school and law practice since a lot of law is about assessing risk and then trying to quantify risk in monetary terms.

You moved into corporate so quickly, becoming VP and Associate General Counsel at Salomon Brothers after just two years. What got you to go in-house?

It was pretty uncommon to go in-house as quickly as I did back then, but I was approached by a headhunter who had gotten my name through a mutual acquaintance. Salomon Brothers was looking for an in-house attorney with corporate experience. They had originally been looking for a more senior attorney but when they did not find the right fit, they refocused their search towards a more junior attorney that they were willing to train. That sounded very interesting to me.

During my two years at Stroock, I discovered that my favorite part of the job was dealing with the business people directly as opposed to working on the umpteenth draft of an agreement. When I worked on deals for clients at Stroock, I often wondered what happened next to capitalize on the transaction I had helped to execute. I realized that I wanted to work more directly with the business people at the client companies to build on what I worked on and be involved in the next big thing for that company moving forward. So, I met with Salomon Brothers. They liked the fact that I had a financial and accounting background, and I liked the fact that they would train me for my role. So, it was a good fit, and I was excited to take the leap. Going in-house, I got to see and learn the business side of transactions and how things play out over time.

What proved to be most helpful to you when you went in-house?

The skills and lessons from law firm practice were very helpful. Whether you are in-house or external counsel, clients present problems and you have to figure out how to address them. Oftentimes, that means figuring out what they really want to accomplish and what they are really asking of you as a lawyer. At Stroock, I learned how to assess client needs. I learned how to approach a problem from a legal perspective and how to engage with a client to gain their confidence as a trusted adviser. I developed these skills at Stroock, and they proved to be very useful.  

What proved to be the most challenging?

Often working in-house you find yourself straddling the line between being an advocate for the business and being protective of the business. Your role is to determine what the company wants to achieve and then to find a way to go about accomplishing the goal within in the bounds of legal and regulatory requirements. I have to help the business thrive while protecting it. If you want your clients to think of you as their trusted adviser and bring you into the conversation early on, where you can often be the most helpful, they can’t think of you as simply the person who is just going to say no. You have to prove that you can add value to the process and show a willingness to work to find a solution, i.e., “you may not be able to do it that way, but maybe we can do it this way and achieve the same result.”

A mentor once told me that you don’t want the Legal Department to be considered the “business prevention department” by your internal clients. That is advice that has always stuck with me so now I try to impress upon our clients that we are the business protection department. I spend a lot of time finding ways to get the company the result it wanted while articulating and managing the legal risk to the fullest extent possible.  

Did you always want to go corporate? Was that your plan?

When I started practicing law, I thought I was going to be at a law firm forever. I come from a family of medical professionals. Nobody was a lawyer, so I just assumed that you followed a linear path of college, law school and then work at a big Wall Street law firm. But once I started working at the firm as a corporate lawyer, I realized that I really liked the business side of things. When the opportunity came to go in-house, I weighed the pros and cons, told myself that I was at a point in my life where it was OK to take a risk, and decided to make the move. Going in-house definitely was not in my original plan, but I didn’t know if or when such a seemingly good-fit opportunity would come up for me again, so I decided to go for it.

While at Salomon Brothers, I started out as compliance counsel. When Salomon Brothers went through some changes, one of the senior people that I had worked with asked if I’d like to work for a newly created fixed-income business at the company he had moved to. It sounded like an interesting new opportunity, so I moved on to do that. While there, the company’s parent decided to spin the company off in a partial IPO, so I had the opportunity to work on the IPO process.  It was around the same time that Sarbanes-Oxley became effective, so I worked on getting the company into compliance with those new regulations as well. I had not done corporate governance work before and found that I really liked it so my career kind of pivoted there.

I ultimately went to work for Greenwich Capital, to do fixed-income and governance legal work for them. When they became part of RBS Americas, my role expanded and I became the head of corporate governance for RBS Americas. When market conditions changed, and RBS was bailed out by the U.K. government, one of its mandates was to divest itself of certain assets and businesses.  One of those it was determined would be Citizens Financial Group, Inc., the U.S. holding company for its U.S. banking business. They decided to spin it off in an IPO and I was invited to move over to Citizens Bank to help them execute the IPO, build a governance function fit-for-purpose for a U.S. NYSE-listed bank holding company and to act as corporate secretary for the holding company and its banking subsidiaries. It was such a rewarding experience and I got to draw on experience and expertise from many facets of my career and background, build a corporate governance function from the ground up, and become the Corporate Secretary of a public company, something I had never done before.

Tell me about your current role.

I am Executive Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Secretary for Citizens Financial Group, Inc., which is a New York Stock Exchange-listed Fortune 500 company. It’s a holding company for a bank and other financial subsidiaries and I am responsible for advising the board, the chairman and senior management on corporate governance and public disclosure matters. My team handles all of the SEC and New York Stock Exchange corporate governance filings, proxy statements and public disclosures. I have a shareholder engagement team and we work closely with the investor relations team on outreach to our shareholders. We work with the finance and treasury functions on their corporate actions as well. We also have an internal governance function to deal with corporate governance matters and subsidiary management and we also advise on governance and disclosure issues in the context of mergers and acquisitions.

I’ve read that you are actively engaged in promoting women in the workplace. What are some of the strategies that can help women achieve success in the workplace and in your industry generally? 

I’m very passionate about career development for women. I began my career at a time when very few women were in the financial industry. That has changed somewhat, but not nearly enough. We have talked about this internally and are working on ways to attract, retain and promote women across the organization, including business, finance and technology roles. A part of the problem can be how roles and opportunities are described as far as the skills and experience needed. Many financial industry roles require good analytical skills, good communication skills, and multitasking skills that are sometimes not emphasized.

With more complete descriptions, we can attract those with the qualities needed for success. Women often won’t apply for a job unless they possess nearly all of the skills in the job description. Men tend to be less risk adverse and will apply for jobs with far fewer of the noted skills. When I’m looking to hire people, I want candidates who possess good analytical and communication skills, and the ability to read people well. Those more general qualities and the ability and willingness to learn are more important to me than how many years of experience a candidate has.

What advice would you give newer lawyers regarding forging a career path?  

I think my career went the way it did because I was open to opportunities. I advise new lawyers and junior attorneys who work for me to never assume that they know what direction their career is going to go in. There are so many areas of expertise that didn’t exist when I started out and it’s important to keep an open mind and look for opportunities, try new things, and get involved in projects and cases that interest you. If there’s a project that you think is interesting, volunteer to work on it. It may be a good stepping stone for your career. It never hurts to ask. You have to seek out your opportunities sometimes. I have an 11-year-old daughter in middle school. I tell her these things too. Sometimes all it takes is asking for an opportunity.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that we now have more work flexibility. I don’t think it’s ever going to completely go back to where it was. Flexibility has become a really important aspect of a company’s work environment and makes finding opportunities easier since geographic restrictions are not as limiting as they used to be. 

What can outside counsel do to make the job of in-house counsel and other corporate leaders easier?

Be available, ask the right questions, figure out what the client really wants and needs, and then help the client achieve its goals. Delegate matters to the right people with the right level of experience and expertise.

Finally, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love to spend time with my daughter and catch up with friends now that the world is opening up again. I’m a beach person and an avid reader so I love to go to the beach in the summer with a good book and relax. I’m also a Broadway fan. I'm happy to say that I finally got to see a Broadway show after two years of COVID-19 isolation and I’m hoping to do more of that going forward.

April 5, 2022

Alumni Spotlight Interview

Stroock recently caught up with firm alumni Robin Elkowitz, now Executive Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Secretary for Citizens Financial Group, Inc. (NYSE: CFG). In the interview that followed, Robin spoke on her swift move in-house, the lessons that helped her succeed and how she’s advocating for women in the workplace. She also shared some practical career advice for newer lawyers.

Tell me about your time at Stroock. What brought you to Stroock and what did you enjoy most about working at the firm?

I chose to go to Stroock right out of law school. I had a lot of firms to choose from and the thing that struck me most at Stroock was the people that I met when interviewing there. They really drew me to the firm. Joining Stroock proved to be a good decision. It was a great learning experience.

I always joke that law school prepares you to be a great Supreme Court Justice, but that it really doesn’t teach you much about the practicalities of law practice. I got to learn those practicalities in my time at Stroock. My strong business, financial and accounting background led me to become a part of the firm’s Corporate Department, primarily in the Asset-Backed Finance Group. I really got to learn how to apply my background in those areas to my legal practice so that was a great building block for me as I moved forward in my career.

I noticed that you are both a CPA and an attorney. Did you have a career game plan in mind?

I did not ever plan to be an accountant. In college, I majored in accounting and finance and as a senior, I was advised to take the CPA exam because I had completed all the necessary accounting and financial coursework. So, I took and passed the CPA exam. I figured you never know when you might need that, and I certainly have no regrets about doing so. My finance and accounting background proved to be very helpful in law school and law practice since a lot of law is about assessing risk and then trying to quantify risk in monetary terms.

You moved into corporate so quickly, becoming VP and Associate General Counsel at Salomon Brothers after just two years. What got you to go in-house?

It was pretty uncommon to go in-house as quickly as I did back then, but I was approached by a headhunter who had gotten my name through a mutual acquaintance. Salomon Brothers was looking for an in-house attorney with corporate experience. They had originally been looking for a more senior attorney but when they did not find the right fit, they refocused their search towards a more junior attorney that they were willing to train. That sounded very interesting to me.

During my two years at Stroock, I discovered that my favorite part of the job was dealing with the business people directly as opposed to working on the umpteenth draft of an agreement. When I worked on deals for clients at Stroock, I often wondered what happened next to capitalize on the transaction I had helped to execute. I realized that I wanted to work more directly with the business people at the client companies to build on what I worked on and be involved in the next big thing for that company moving forward. So, I met with Salomon Brothers. They liked the fact that I had a financial and accounting background, and I liked the fact that they would train me for my role. So, it was a good fit, and I was excited to take the leap. Going in-house, I got to see and learn the business side of transactions and how things play out over time.

What proved to be most helpful to you when you went in-house?

The skills and lessons from law firm practice were very helpful. Whether you are in-house or external counsel, clients present problems and you have to figure out how to address them. Oftentimes, that means figuring out what they really want to accomplish and what they are really asking of you as a lawyer. At Stroock, I learned how to assess client needs. I learned how to approach a problem from a legal perspective and how to engage with a client to gain their confidence as a trusted adviser. I developed these skills at Stroock, and they proved to be very useful.  

What proved to be the most challenging?

Often working in-house you find yourself straddling the line between being an advocate for the business and being protective of the business. Your role is to determine what the company wants to achieve and then to find a way to go about accomplishing the goal within in the bounds of legal and regulatory requirements. I have to help the business thrive while protecting it. If you want your clients to think of you as their trusted adviser and bring you into the conversation early on, where you can often be the most helpful, they can’t think of you as simply the person who is just going to say no. You have to prove that you can add value to the process and show a willingness to work to find a solution, i.e., “you may not be able to do it that way, but maybe we can do it this way and achieve the same result.”

A mentor once told me that you don’t want the Legal Department to be considered the “business prevention department” by your internal clients. That is advice that has always stuck with me so now I try to impress upon our clients that we are the business protection department. I spend a lot of time finding ways to get the company the result it wanted while articulating and managing the legal risk to the fullest extent possible.  

Did you always want to go corporate? Was that your plan?

When I started practicing law, I thought I was going to be at a law firm forever. I come from a family of medical professionals. Nobody was a lawyer, so I just assumed that you followed a linear path of college, law school and then work at a big Wall Street law firm. But once I started working at the firm as a corporate lawyer, I realized that I really liked the business side of things. When the opportunity came to go in-house, I weighed the pros and cons, told myself that I was at a point in my life where it was OK to take a risk, and decided to make the move. Going in-house definitely was not in my original plan, but I didn’t know if or when such a seemingly good-fit opportunity would come up for me again, so I decided to go for it.

While at Salomon Brothers, I started out as compliance counsel. When Salomon Brothers went through some changes, one of the senior people that I had worked with asked if I’d like to work for a newly created fixed-income business at the company he had moved to. It sounded like an interesting new opportunity, so I moved on to do that. While there, the company’s parent decided to spin the company off in a partial IPO, so I had the opportunity to work on the IPO process.  It was around the same time that Sarbanes-Oxley became effective, so I worked on getting the company into compliance with those new regulations as well. I had not done corporate governance work before and found that I really liked it so my career kind of pivoted there.

I ultimately went to work for Greenwich Capital, to do fixed-income and governance legal work for them. When they became part of RBS Americas, my role expanded and I became the head of corporate governance for RBS Americas. When market conditions changed, and RBS was bailed out by the U.K. government, one of its mandates was to divest itself of certain assets and businesses.  One of those it was determined would be Citizens Financial Group, Inc., the U.S. holding company for its U.S. banking business. They decided to spin it off in an IPO and I was invited to move over to Citizens Bank to help them execute the IPO, build a governance function fit-for-purpose for a U.S. NYSE-listed bank holding company and to act as corporate secretary for the holding company and its banking subsidiaries. It was such a rewarding experience and I got to draw on experience and expertise from many facets of my career and background, build a corporate governance function from the ground up, and become the Corporate Secretary of a public company, something I had never done before.

Tell me about your current role.

I am Executive Vice President, Deputy General Counsel and Secretary for Citizens Financial Group, Inc., which is a New York Stock Exchange-listed Fortune 500 company. It’s a holding company for a bank and other financial subsidiaries and I am responsible for advising the board, the chairman and senior management on corporate governance and public disclosure matters. My team handles all of the SEC and New York Stock Exchange corporate governance filings, proxy statements and public disclosures. I have a shareholder engagement team and we work closely with the investor relations team on outreach to our shareholders. We work with the finance and treasury functions on their corporate actions as well. We also have an internal governance function to deal with corporate governance matters and subsidiary management and we also advise on governance and disclosure issues in the context of mergers and acquisitions.

I’ve read that you are actively engaged in promoting women in the workplace. What are some of the strategies that can help women achieve success in the workplace and in your industry generally? 

I’m very passionate about career development for women. I began my career at a time when very few women were in the financial industry. That has changed somewhat, but not nearly enough. We have talked about this internally and are working on ways to attract, retain and promote women across the organization, including business, finance and technology roles. A part of the problem can be how roles and opportunities are described as far as the skills and experience needed. Many financial industry roles require good analytical skills, good communication skills, and multitasking skills that are sometimes not emphasized.

With more complete descriptions, we can attract those with the qualities needed for success. Women often won’t apply for a job unless they possess nearly all of the skills in the job description. Men tend to be less risk adverse and will apply for jobs with far fewer of the noted skills. When I’m looking to hire people, I want candidates who possess good analytical and communication skills, and the ability to read people well. Those more general qualities and the ability and willingness to learn are more important to me than how many years of experience a candidate has.

What advice would you give newer lawyers regarding forging a career path?  

I think my career went the way it did because I was open to opportunities. I advise new lawyers and junior attorneys who work for me to never assume that they know what direction their career is going to go in. There are so many areas of expertise that didn’t exist when I started out and it’s important to keep an open mind and look for opportunities, try new things, and get involved in projects and cases that interest you. If there’s a project that you think is interesting, volunteer to work on it. It may be a good stepping stone for your career. It never hurts to ask. You have to seek out your opportunities sometimes. I have an 11-year-old daughter in middle school. I tell her these things too. Sometimes all it takes is asking for an opportunity.

A silver lining of the pandemic is that we now have more work flexibility. I don’t think it’s ever going to completely go back to where it was. Flexibility has become a really important aspect of a company’s work environment and makes finding opportunities easier since geographic restrictions are not as limiting as they used to be. 

What can outside counsel do to make the job of in-house counsel and other corporate leaders easier?

Be available, ask the right questions, figure out what the client really wants and needs, and then help the client achieve its goals. Delegate matters to the right people with the right level of experience and expertise.

Finally, what do you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love to spend time with my daughter and catch up with friends now that the world is opening up again. I’m a beach person and an avid reader so I love to go to the beach in the summer with a good book and relax. I’m also a Broadway fan. I'm happy to say that I finally got to see a Broadway show after two years of COVID-19 isolation and I’m hoping to do more of that going forward.