Vanderbilt Lawyer - Volume 35, Number 2

The GC Gets Out in Front

As AMERCO's general counsel, career litigator Larry De Respino believes in an ounce of prevention

by Grace Renshaw Larry De Respino

The announcement that Larry De Respino, '87, had been named general counsel of AMERCO hit the news wires during the hearings preceding the appointment of John Roberts as Chief Justice, and De Respino sounds almost as happy about Roberts' new job as he was his own. "John represented us on a couple of matters when he was at Hogan and Hartson," De Respino recalls. "He's a super guy—and very, very bright."

De Respino, who earned his undergraduate degree at Amherst, receives the same accolades from former classmates at Vanderbilt Law School as well as from his colleagues at AMERCO, the publicly traded company he joined as director of litigation in 2000. Best known for its largest subsidiary, U-Haul, AMERCO currently has 18,400 employees at more than 15,400 locations in all 50 states and 10 Canadian provinces.

With an in-house staff of 11 attorneys and 11 paralegals, De Respino deals with a range of legal issues as expansive as his company's geographic range, addressing almost every facet of corporate law from employment and labor relations to liability and risk management to investor relations to compliance with a host of federal and state regulatory requirements. "Quite frankly, the challenge for any general counsel is to develop the tremendous body of knowledge you need to excel at that function," he acknowledges.

AMERCO's legal department includes the corporation's labor and industrial relations staff along with a highly specialized engineering group that develops technical analyses of the products U-Haul rents to the public, a task that occasionally entails providing expert testimony. De Respino and his staff also hire and supervise outside legal counsel, an essential aspect of providing all types of legal services in locations throughout North America.

De Respino deliberately approaches his new job from the perspective of a symphony conductor. "The most important thing I do is make sure all of AMERCO's legal services to work together to facilitate rather than obstruct the company's business," he says. "Over the course of my career, as I practiced both on the outside and on the inside, I often heard clients lament the fact that lawyers too often tell people what they can't do without also talking about what they can do to achieve their goals. So I'm sensitive to the need to talk about what my clients need to accomplish and present constructive alternatives. In fact, it's my job to help the company accomplish its goals and reach out to customers, because our shareholders demand that we be profitable."

Because AMERCO employees range from business and insurance executives to highly skilled engineers to high-school-educated rental clerks at U-Haul locations across the continent, De Respino stresses the importance of clear communication. "I am very keen on making sure our lawyers—both staff and outside—communicate effectively with the people who work at all of our locations," he says. "We have to consider all of the clients we represent, as well as the company's business goals, objectives and the processes already in place, so we give practical, relevant advice and function as an asset rather than a hindrance or a roadblock."

De Respino, who specialized in corporate litigation as a partner in the Phoenix office of Streich Lang before joining AMERCO, acknowledges that his career path is not typical for a general counsel. "Most lawyers who become a general counsel have a background in transactional or securities law," he notes.

However, he believes his background as a litigator was an excellent preparation for one of the most important functions of an in-house legal department—that of anticipating potential problems and working with company executives to develop strategies to prevent them. "When you're doing damage control, it's too late," De Respino says. "My job is to get out in front and use my knowledge, judgment, expertise and intuition—all of the resources at my disposal—to help the company identify potential issues before they arise, get out in front of them, and deal with them as good corporate citizens at a state and local level. I can assure you that the chairman of the board, our directors and senior management see the function of general counsel in that light."

His job could easily consume all of his time, but De Respino also believes strongly in the need to maintain a professional network. For more than 10 years, he has joined several other VULS alums from the class of 1987—including David Melloh, Garry Grooms, Bill Bagget, Rick Van Duzer and Demi Allen—for an annual golfing outing at resorts throughout the U.S., including Pinehurst, Kohler in Wisconsin, and several cities where golf resorts are plentiful, including Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, and San Diego. The group includes a mix of corporate staff attorneys and partners in law firms on both coasts.

"I think I've hit the core group of Vanderbilt guys: in-house, outside, some litigator, some transactional," De Respino says. "I also use the Vanderbilt directory when I need a lawyer in a particular location where I don't have a relationship as a friendly referral source. When you've gone to the same school, you have something in common, and there's a built-in trust. You know that person will endeavor to help you out."

Profile: Larry De Respino, '87

Education
Larry De Respino majored in political science at Amherst College, where he was also the first baseman on the baseball team, graduating in 1982. At Vanderbilt Law School, he was selected for the Vanderbilt Law Review.
Career
Before joining AMERCO in 2000, De Respino was a partner in the litigation group with Streich Lang in Phoenix for much of his career.
Family
De Respino's wife, Robin, is an attorney specializing in state tax law and planning. They have two children: Seve, 11, and Sophie, 9.
On the Role of In-house Legal Services
"We're not hired guns. We don't have 20 or 30 clients. This is our client. I encourage us to become embedded in the company in a positive, proactive way, so we're not an afterthought."
Immediate Challenges
"Quite frankly, the challenge for any general counsel is to develop the tremendous body of knowledge you need to excel at that function."
Long-term Challenge
Help AMERCO "get out in front of" potential problems by anticipating them and developing strategies to avoid them.
Long-term Professional Plans
De Respino is AMERCO's fifth general counsel since its founding in 1945. "I have a unique opportunity—which I also view as a personal challenge—to develop fully as general counsel of my company by learning as much as I can about the law relating to every area of our business," he says.
Professional Mantras:
"We need to work as a team with businesspeople."
"When you're doing damage control, it's too late."
"Knowledge is power."
"You never stop learning."
"When there's poor communication or interaction, the client's expectations are usually unrealistic."
"Give practical, relevant advice."
"Clear communication is the only way to make sure the legal department is as an asset rather than a hindrance."