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Monica Karuturi and Jason Ryan are the top two lawyers at corporate giant CenterPoint Energy, a company with a market cap of $17.5 billion. But what sets them and CenterPoint apart is a total commitment to pro bono service.
Though they came to their mutual commitment by different paths, both say their communities — as well as their own lives — have been enriched by the dedication to others shown by their CenterPoint colleagues.
Lawbook founder Mark Curriden asked them to share some of their thoughts and experiences as the top legal voices for their company.
Texas Lawbook: What has been your best day at CenterPoint so far?
Monica Karuturi: With nearly eight years at the company, it’s hard to pick just one. I have a great deal of respect for my colleagues and their dedication and commitment to our customers and our communities. I’m always incredibly inspired when I see our employees come together during a storm event. The passion for protecting our communities and delivery service, while always there, is so clearly evident during a storm event when people leave their families and their homes and set up for their emergency-response duties.
Jason Ryan: I am most proud to be a CenterPoint Energy employee when our company helps our communities in the worst of situations. Whether it’s a natural disaster in our own area or if it’s sending crews to other communities to help, we make a difference when people need it the most. Every day we do that – make a positive difference in peoples’ lives when they need it the most – is the best day on the job.
Lawbook: What are one or two life-impacting experiences you’ve had?
Karuturi: There is no doubt that the frequent trips to India during my childhood and throughout my adolescence were significant growth experiences for me. It gave me a broader understanding of the world, poverty and suffering. On one particular trip, we spent time at an orphanage and traveling medical clinic. The love, hope and strength that I witnessed, in spite of extreme suffering, was a humbling experience, and I’ve learned to count my blessings every day.
For Mark Curriden’s full profile of Monica and Jason Click Here.
Motherhood has another life-changing experience. I learned about the depth of love and appreciate so much more all that my parents have done for me. Being a mother has made me better in every way – more empathetic, patient, diligent and steady. I have two young boys (4 and 12) that help me gain perspective no matter the challenges that I face through my career. They have been my best teachers.
Lawbook: What are your biggest successes during your time at CenterPoint?
Ryan: I worked on legislation to allow us to open up our electric transmission corridors in the Houston area to hike-and-bike trails for our communities. Since then, trails have gone in, and I use one of them myself near my home. This is a very good way to partner with the public to accomplish something good for our community.
Another category of success, though, is seeing my employees promoted within my organization or in other areas of the company. I saw that when Monica, my deputy GC, was promoted to GC when I took a different leadership position. I saw that with other employees promoted in my organization and then went on to lead other departments at the company. I take a lot of pride in creating good teams with good leaders and setting them up for future success.
Karuturi: Restarting the [pro bono] program was the first. The program had been successful and strong for a number of years (I believe CenterPoint won the first Magna Stella for pro bono), but the program had waned with leadership transitions. When I interviewed with the GC for my position, one of my requests was that I would be able to start the pro bono program up again. She enthusiastically supported me in the effort. The team has had a number of successes over the years (wills and veterans clinics, KIND [Kids in Need of Defense] cases, HVL cases, Hurricane Harvey clinics, just to name a few) and recognitions from the Houston Bar and Texas Lawyer.
The second would be the work we’ve done to revive the importance of pro bono week in Houston. Each year I work with Houston Volunteer Lawyers on a pro bono-week initiative. We have done GC legal clinics and legal trainings for social workers, awareness campaigns, etc. This year, we took on 11 cases with the Juvenile and Children’s Advocacy Project [JCAP] and sponsored a fundraiser to increase contributions for the Harvest Party.
Lawbook: What are the biggest challenges for a GC at CenterPoint in the future?
Karuturi: Our legal team, like many others, drives work that is critical to the success of our strategy. We have been working on transformation deal work, board governance changes, strategic resets, launch of net-zero goals, corporate refinancings, creation of our renewables portfolio, data privacy and cybersecurity-risk management, overseeing the company’s litigation docket, pandemic management and related compliance, just to name a few major focal points. All of this work is done while trying to maintain a lean budget in an environment of increasing legal expense and while also managing the challenges that all of us have faced during the pandemic with disruptions to our home lives. The challenge continues to be delivering exceptional work and results in spite of all the disruption.
Lawbook: You have been in-house for several years. How has the job or role of in-house changed in those years?
Karuturi: I think that there has been an increasing appreciation of the role that in-house lawyers play to advancing corporate strategy and managing risk. Outside counsel has always been a valued and important means of supporting a company’s legal needs. However, in-house lawyers, by working hand-in-hand with a company’s employees and executives, are uniquely positioned to be proactive issue-spotters and problem-solvers and help the company achieve its objectives. We can be both legal experts and experts for the company and the industry. Understanding context and business environment is essential to being a good lawyer. As an in-house lawyer we have the best vantage point to that context and environment.
Ryan: Fundamentally, I don’t think much has changed in what the role requires. But I do think our company now looks at lawyers who are good leaders as potential leaders for non-legal positions, like the one I’m in now. In many companies, even leaders who happen to be lawyers can get stuck in legal positions only. It’s healthy to use leadership skills beyond legal positions when that best serves the company.
Lawbook: Do you have a mandatory participation requirement for pro bono or how do you incentivize the lawyers in the legal department to step up?
Karuturi: We don’t have a mandatory participation, but it is strongly encouraged. Most of our lawyers support our pro bono work. We have a strategic committee within the legal department that leads our efforts. This committee is responsible for our community service efforts, employee development and D&I. We’ve sponsored various events throughout the last year, including book clubs, service projects with Kids Meals and Salvation Army, D&I discussions, film discussions (John Lewis: Good Trouble), intern programs and the JCAP partnership. I’m really proud of our department. We won the Magna Stella recognition for our D&I efforts.
Ryan: I don’t think it should be mandatory. There’s something about making public service mandatory that doesn’t sit right with me. As a leader, it’s my job to make people compelled to voluntarily undertake public service. That, in my opinion, is what in turn will inspire others. Making it mandatory would work for a period of time, but that would not outlast the leader that made it mandatory. I want to make lasting change. And that means keeping public service voluntary, but helping people see why it’s so important.
Lawbook: What do you look for in hiring outside counsel?
Ryan: I first look for expertise in the matter we need outside counsel to partner with us on. That’s the deciding factor for me, every time. And if I need to piece together a team of lawyers from multiple firms to get the right team, that’s what I’ll do. Those lawyers then know what our values are in terms of public service, diversity and community initiatives. We work to partner with those lawyers to further our values.
Lawbook: What are your pet peeves regarding outside counsel?
Karuturi: Failing to comply with our outside counsel guidelines. We specify our expectations very clearly in writing. We don’t hide the ball on what good looks like to us. Some firms do a better job at paying attention. The ones that do get more of our work.
Lawyers who don’t give a clear answer. As in-house lawyers, we have to answer the question and provide recommendations. Analysis without recommendations doesn’t move the needle for us.
Ryan: It bothers me when our outside lawyers do not take the time to fully understand how their matter may fit in a larger corporate strategy or interest. That is, fundamentally, our job to make sure the outside lawyers understand it, but lawyers who see a matter in a vacuum and are not curious about bigger picture issues will often forget about that bigger picture and make decisions along the way that I would not have made.
Lawbook: What does outside counsel need to know about you?
Karuturi: Our team is well regarded at CNP because we deliver excellent service. We have the same expectations for our outside counsel. Counsel that understands that our resources are precious and limited, but that expectations for quality are high, do the best work for us. We need to be strategic partners for the business while managing risk. Some lawyers know how to achieve only one of those objectives. We are expected to achieve both.
Ryan: My team works harder than your team, so try to keep up.
Lawbook: How important is diversity in your hiring of outside counsel? Have you ever fired a law firm for its lack of diversity or would you under what conditions?
Karuturi: D&I is an important priority for us and one that we discuss with law firms during the RFP process and also a priority we make explicitly clear in our outside counsel guidelines. Last year, I sent a letter to our law firms emphasizing D&I as a priority, and the firms that have stepped up have done so in a big way. We have been seeing a concerted effort by firms to diversify timekeepers and participate with us on our D&I initiatives.
Ryan: I started a number of years ago keeping track of diverse lawyers on our matters via our billing system. That way we can use data to drive discussions about whether the firm’s approach to diversity lines up with our values. And we can address improvements in diversity on a firm-by-firm basis, because every firm can improve. If you have a one-size-fits-all approach, that can cause firms that could still do more to stagnate. I have made decisions on whether to continue to work with a firm based on whether we see progress on aligning our values.
Lawbook: How important is pro bono when hiring outside counsel?
Karuturi: Extremely important. Our outside counsel guidelines emphasize the importance of pro bono for our decisions to select outside counsel. Our best partnerships with outside counsel have resulted in pro bono partnerships. I’m currently doing a JCAP case now with Akin Partner, Cynthia Mabry.
Ryan: This is another value that we work to align with our firms. Whether it’s partnering with them on pro bono matters or seeking their support to fund pro bono legal service organizations, regardless of whether it’s a big, medium or small firm, there are ways for us to partner on pro bono initiatives. It is important that we don’t just focus on the work, but also our profession, when we make decisions on who we hire.
Lawbook: Any life or career mentors?
Karuturi: I’m very fortunate in this regard. I’ve had great mentors along the way, starting with my grandparents and my parents.
My grandparents had to create educational opportunities for themselves and by doing so changed the fate of our entire family. My grandmother on my mother’s side never had a formal education. She didn’t have that opportunity growing up in India. She was my biggest advocate and reinforced for me the importance of education and the opportunity that I had been given. My grandfather on my father’s side similarly didn’t have access to a formal education growing up. He was self-taught and worked as a clerk and was eventually able to gain enough success to formally educate five of his eight children, including my father, and sponsor many others in his village with their education once his children were grown. I still recall trips to visit his village in India over the summer. He placed a wooden desk in front of the house with a pile of math books and would watch out his window to make sure I did all the assigned work before playing. I credit my grandparents for being an inspiration and teaching me the importance of a strong work ethic and my parents for reinforcing those early lessons as I grew up.
My parents have dedicated their lives to making my sister (breast oncologist at MD Anderson) and me successful and taught us the importance of community service and engagement. From the time we were young children, our family worked at a soup kitchen, cooking and serving meals. We spent many holidays, weekends and summers there and built our commitment to community service through those early experiences.
I’ve been lucky to work for incredible lawyers throughout my career and three great GCs – Craig Glidden, Dana O’Brien and Jason Ryan – and two phenomenal deputy GCs that have gone on to be GCs – Jeff Kaplan and Ben Ederington. I’ve learned from all of them, and I continue to learn from the incredible team of lawyers that I am fortunate to work with every day.