Q&A with Joanne Caruso of Jacobs

Joanne Caruso is the Executive Vice President, Chief Legal and Administrative Officer of Jacobs. We recently spoke with Joanne about her career path and the varied roles she has held at Jacobs, including as the Executive Sponsor of PRISM, the company’s employee network group for LGBTQI+ employees and their allies.

Q. You’ve had such a varied career, which has included a number of leadership positions. Could you please tell us about your career path to date and how you got to where you are now?

After law school I went to a private law firm in Washington, D.C. that did litigation only. I really wanted to be a litigator and was excited to be at a firm that just did that. After about 11 years, I was asked to help build the firm’s Los Angeles office, which had just opened a few years earlier. I was in Los Angeles for many years, joined the Executive Committee of the firm, and ended up as the Managing Partner for all of our California offices.

In 2012, I joined Jacobs as Vice President, Global Litigation, where I was responsible for the oversight and management of all of the company’s litigation worldwide. Then in 2017, during one of the big cases that we had, there was a lot of opportunity to work with senior management, including the CEO and the CFO. When the head of Human Resources left, our CEO Steve Demetriou asked me if I was interested in the role. I didn’t have any experience with HR, but he positioned it as being a matter of leadership and relying on experts. So, I jumped into that.

Following a major acquisition, we grew by 50% in terms of personnel, bringing us to about 70,000 people. As the leadership team was being put together, the Board and CEO decided to create another position, Chief Administrative Officer. They asked me if I would be interested in that role, which I was. After a year as CAO, they created another role that had not existed before, which is the position I have now: Chief Legal and Administrative Officer.

I lead a number of functions in this role, including legal, compliance and risk, so when I was appointed Chief Legal and Administrative Officer, I was also made Executive Vice President. I don’t place a huge emphasis on titles, but I am proud that I was the first woman at Jacobs to be an Executive Vice President.

Q. The jump from private practice to in-house is a decision that many lawyers grapple with at a certain point in their career. Can you talk a little bit about that transition?

I had always thought about going in-house, but I love to litigate, and at the law firm I was fortunate to be involved in some important cases, many of which went to trial. I am a very competitive person and I like to win, so even though I don’t consider myself a confrontational person, I love being in court arguing and trying cases. I had been practicing for a long time, so after the firm dissolved I was ready for a change. Then I saw that the role at Jacobs had opened up.

It was a great move. In some ways, being in-house was like being in trial almost all the time. When I joined Jacobs, we had a couple of cases in progress that were incredibly busy and had some major issues to deal with, so I was working as hard as I had been in private practice and with even longer hours! The move in-house wasn’t about a lifestyle change; it was about new and different opportunities.

What was so wonderful about the role was the opportunity to learn about litigation on a global scale, work with people around the world, and focus on the business aspect of the case rather than some of the drudgery of litigation. One of the things I didn’t anticipate was that some of the outside lawyers treated me like I didn’t know anything about litigation and didn’t want my input. That took some time and effort to deal with, but I was able to work through it.

Q. That sounds challenging. How did you navigate the situation?

One of the benefits I had was experience working with a lot of great trial lawyers. This gave me insight into how some litigators and trial lawyers operate when something bad happens—many will turn it around and position it as a good thing. But since I had seen it from the other side, I could press them on it. In those situations, I had the confidence and experience to push back when something wasn’t what was best for the company.

Q. On the topic of the relationship between in-house lawyers and outside counsel, what are some of the best things that private practice lawyers can do when working with their clients?

First of all, manage expectations. Be straight about the pros and cons so we can all figure out the best way forward. Get to the bottom line as quickly as possible. The information you send us should be direct and to the point, because there is so much coming at us all the time. What it comes down to is recognition by outside counsel of the best and most efficient use of our time. And it is particularly important to make in-house counsel aware of the things that will require a lot of time so that they are able to plan for it.

Second, think outside the box. What often surprises me is how many outside counsel fail to challenge themselves to think of or research different ways to approach a problem. I am a big believer that there’s always a way forward.

And, third, develop trusted relationships so that when a problem arises, in-house lawyers know who they can go to in order to resolve issues.

Q. From your vantage point as a woman in a senior position, you likely have had opportunity to see some of the ways that men and women navigate their careers differently. Based on those observations, what should women keep in mind?

Not surprisingly, when I went in-house, I had a lot of people reaching out to me—including people I had never met or hadn’t heard from for a long time—asking to meet so that they could meet to tell me about their practice and firm. 98% of the time, it was men who were reaching out, and I noticed that men were more likely than women to follow up on those requests.

Likewise, if I was speaking on a panel, there were almost always men who would come up to say hello and follow up with me afterwards. It was quite interesting to me how much more frequently men did that than women. I suspect that women are probably thinking that they don’t want to be a bother or don’t want to impose. Or they think that I didn’t reply when they reached out because I wasn’t interested, when in fact it’s much more likely that I was simply too busy at that moment.

This ties back to best practices for outside counsel. What women in law firms should keep in mind is that no matter how many demands are on in-house counsel, persistence and developing relationships are important. Men are doing it. I know how important business development is in many firms, and those types of communications are important to establishing the relationships that ensure you are the one to get the phone call.

Q. What parts of your career have been the most rewarding?

Jacobs is such a wonderful company and with the variety of the work that we are doing, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the best lawyers in the world. Also, because of the breadth and scope of the work that Jacobs is doing, my colleagues are smart, hard-working, innovative and doing work that is creating solutions for some of the world’s toughest problems. I am privileged to be part of this organization and feel fortunate to meet so many people within Jacobs and have so many exciting varied experiences.

As an example, one of our biggest U.S. government clients is NASA. Right before everything shut down due to the pandemic, I had the opportunity to go to Kennedy Space Center for one of our Board Meetings and to see all of the great work that our employees are doing to support NASA and the space program. We have about 55,000 employees all over the world, and I have the opportunity to meet and interact with many of them and learn about their experiences. It has been so rewarding and educational. I learn something every single day.

Q. You have spoken previously about the significance of being a visible and vocal ally. Would you tell us more about why this is so important?

I never really appreciated how important it is until I started serving as the executive sponsor of our Prism network, which is for LGBTQI+ employees and allies. In Prism we have an “I’m an ally” card that people can put it in their office. The goal is that when someone walks into an office and sees a Prism banner, they know it’s a safe space.

We also have started holding what we call “Courageous Conversations,” where people are able to speak their truth about what they have experienced in their own lives, both at home and at work. Our entire Executive Leadership Team participates in these calls and lets people know “I am going to be with you,” and “I want to understand your experience so that I can be not only an ally, but also an advocate.” It is incredible and critical!

We just launched “Advocate & Ally Training,” which includes discussions about unconscious bias and ways that we can deal with it when we see it. When I recently participated in the training, one of the things that struck me was the realization that for the majority of my career, few organizations ever spoke about these things or if they did, it was little more than lip-service.

For much of the first part of my career, the women I worked with would hesitate to speak about their personal lives, and many of us would not even put pictures in our office of our families. Some of us were advised not to have children until we become a partner, and we would hear the stories about a colleague who took a conference call right after delivering her baby or who was back at work as soon as she got home from the hospital. Not good!

I think that has definitely changed. A lot of it is due to the women’s groups within organizations, and the people in charge being receptive to what they hear. At Jacobs, we are trying to make sure we do right by everyone, which I think is really important. Work is obviously extremely important, but you can have a thriving career and a fulfilling family life or life outside of work. You need to figure out what’s right for you, and if your place of employment doesn’t align with that, you’ve got to have enough confidence to find something else.

Q. In terms of leadership styles, how has your own leadership style developed over the years?

It’s a continual process. I’ve seen a lot of good leaders, and I’ve seen a lot of bad leaders. And you learn from both types. I have seen leaders who will ask everybody for input, even the person who is photocopying documents. They include people and that’s important. I tend to be a leader who believes in the power of people, which, in my experience, leads to creative, innovative solutions much better than dictating what needs to be done and how. In college, I was the head of student government, and in our yearbook it was written that “she cares more about people than the power that she holds.” I have always loved that.

Q. Is there any knowledge or advice that you would like to be able to share with your former self when you were starting your career?

I would tell my younger self to lighten up, have more faith in myself, and know that I am as good as the other people. I would also tell myself to continue to take risks.

When I was at the law firm and one of the partners asked if I would be willing to move to Los Angeles, I didn’t know anyone in LA, my husband and I were both going to have to take the California Bar exam, and I had just had a baby. But I said “sure, why not?” I did that a bunch of times in my career: took a risk and then figured it out from there. Much like when I was offered the chance to lead HR, which meant stepping out of my comfort zone, it was a matter of jumping in and thinking of it as a learning experience and new opportunity, without overanalyzing it.

I also think it’s important to understand that other people in the room are probably feeling the same way that you are. Remember that you are in the room for a reason. You deserve to be there and are as competent as the others. So continue to say yes and have enough confidence in yourself to know that whatever a job or life throws at you, you are going to figure it out.

Raeesa Rawal is an associate in Debevoise’s London office.

Comments? Suggestions? We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email at women@debevoise.com.