Professional Advice about International Legal Careers

International Law Society – The University of Arizona

Glenn Williamson – Entrepreneur, Founder & CEO of Canada Arizona Business Council


Mr. WIlliamson is a self-proclaimed serial entrepreneur who, in addition to being on a number of boards, is founder and CEO of the Canada Arizona Business Council.

Mr. Williamson, do you mind me asking what you do?

Well I think the best way to start is by saying that I’m a serial entrepreneur. I’ve started a couple of companies of my own from scratch and I’ve been on the other side as an investment banker. Now I’m at the point in my life that I’ve founded a nonprofit that is primarily interested in cross-border education and advocacy for trade, tourism and foreign direct investment between Canada and the state of Arizona. I also sit on a few boards. I am chairman of the largest private water company in Arizona and i just stepped down from running a very high-tech aerospace company that navigated spacecraft around Mercury and Pluto. So I’m fairly diversified.

Can you give me a day in the life of Glenn WIlliamson?

Certainly. I get up in the morning and my highest priority in my life are my children. I’m 57 and I have 14-year old twins and they take highest priority, along with my wife. I then sit at my home office and work for about 10 hours a day. I usually start with going through phone calls and meetings that I have with government officials — I spend a lot of time with the state government and the Canadian government — and I interface with about 150 – 200 companies in the state of Arizona — helping them acclimatize in the US. Then the balance of the day I spend with American companies, trying to help them get a little more international. Now part of that has to with only about 1% of all American companies exporting we don’t have a lot of exporting expertise among the SME’s market and therefore the CEO’s of the US, as the US develops more globally at the mid-market level, we need to help these guys get knowledgeable as fast as we can.

Can you describe how a law student looking to get into such work could get access to SME’s looking for help?

Let me be a little controversial here and say that many of our law firms in our non-international cities, so that would be the second-tier cities in the US, are law firms that are not very international in their overall capabilities. Now, that being said, many CEO’s of smaller companies would love to have fresh-out law students advising them on what they need do versus the larger law firms. And that is something that we have learned the more we have talked to these CEO’s. They have a lot of basic regulatory questions that someone who is trained as a lawyer can think about. So we see a huge opportunity for students coming out of law school to help those smaller companies and help those lawyers and become the #2 and #3 in those companies versus just becoming a lawyer in a law firm. That is something that we have watched over and over again and it would be extraordinarily beneficial to the company.

You know, many lawyers, when their trained, come out trained to work in a large law firm. While there is a large segment which should do that, there is also a segment of the group which should take their thinking process and become a confidant, an in-house general counsel/thinker/partner/entrepreneur/startup type person because those types of experiences are more prevalent. If you’re starting a company now in this day and age, we have a huge issue that allows those companies to compete and the problem is that we’re competing globally now and we have people who just don’t have the regulatory experience. And that takes someone who is has a legal brain to noodle through what an entrepreneur or just a business person is not trained in doing. The accountants aren’t trained in doing it and the outside counsel is just too expensive. So, it has become a very, very difficult thing to get these smaller companies, and the CEO’s of these smaller companies, up to speed as fast as we can. And as the US becomes more engaged internationally, you know here’s a perfect example: the aerospace industry in the US is very significant. Unfortunately, a very large percentage of it – maybe 50% – 60% of it — goes on outside of the United States. So, as sequestration brings down the buying power from the pentagon, you know from $700 billion to about $350 billion, or something like that, these companies that have been in that supply chain are in trouble because they don’t know how to sell internationally. Now, their engineers can retool their products, but the CEO’s don’t know how to fly to France, they don’t know what to say, they don’t know the rules and regulations of the international legal community.

How do law students get in touch with SME’s looking to expand?

First thing to do is to recognize that the large law firms are recognizing this problem and that’s why their hiring marketing firms. Almost every major law firm now has a marketing manager to sell their lawyers to the market place. And that tells you that the law firms know that this problem exists and their lawyers don’t know how to go get that.

Lawyers coming fresh out of law school may still be interested in doing a more high risk thing. I encourage them to reach out to the local communities and the market of interest. So if it’s a technology interest, then reach out the local associations and ask to meet, or go to their meetings and meet the CEO’s and tell that you’re a lawyer and you’re interested in doing some consulting work and you’re interested in doing some activities for a smaller firm and I think that you’ll find that once a lawyer has picked a sector of interest, you know those associations that they’ll go to and do the meeting and chatting, that they will find companies relatively quickly.

And the beauty of this is that for a young lawyer to get into a small company, getting paid may not be quite as much as what a colleague makes a big law firm, but they’ll get equity — much faster than trying to become a partner in a law firm. Do that two or three times and now you’ve got paper in two or three different companies. There are lawyers I know that were partners that are going back to this model and they’ve broken through all the economic goals that they’ve set for themselves PLUS they’re doing stuff that’s fun and it’s not servitude inside of a very feudal law firm. Understand, I hire law firms day in and day out.

It’s a dim reality when we realize that we’re going to be locked in a law firm for the next 35 years.

And yet the marketplace is saying that they want new lawyers out in the workplace. It’s always fascinating to look at the lawyers that have, you know, stopped practicing law and became CEO’s. They’re the ones that are really amazing because, to me, a perfect hybrid CEO is an entrepreneur with a very high degree knowledge of the law. That puts them in a very high degree strategic position far above most other people. You know you may have an engineer that runs a company that is very engineer eccentric, but might not have practical experience. Now, you might a have lawyer that’s running the company – that person, in this day and age of global activity and regulatory oversight that’s everywhere – that person is the person that I’m interested in. The odds are that when they think about where they’re going to take the company they’re thinking strategically and regulatorily.

Inside small companies, legal, finance, and good interpersonal skills always make for good general management. It doesn’t matter it it’s a life science company, it doesn’t matter if its a technology company, department of defense company — those three things are the laterals that go across all the sectors.

That’s why a guy like me can sit here, you know, running space companies and water companies and private equity companies. It’s not because I’m skilled in the art. It’s because I’m skilled in the art of business. That is a huge aspect of what law is about. And I’ll be very honest with you, when i have a choice of pulling somebody in, I will always pull a lawyer in because retraining a lawyer is much easier than retraining an accountant.

Why do you say that?

Lawyers are open minded to looking at deals. Lawyers are forward thinking in their processes. Accountants are historical counters of money and activities. So one industry looks ahead and one looks backward.

Do you mind telling a little about your career path? Did you ever see yourself running all these different companies?

Let’s start with the biggy. I only have high school. And I made my first million when I was in my early thirties. Then I lost my first. Then I made my second. Then I lost my second. Then my third and lost it. I’ve done that four times, no actually five times. So the education side was not my strong suit. The school of hard knox was my strong suit.

I started off in hospitality and topped out as the highest paid executive that I could be, probably when i was about 27, as a director of sales and marketing of a major hotel chain. Then I got into a company that needed to have some of that skill set and I learned how to take that company public from scratch. That’s when I discovered that wonderful way to make money: it’s call stock and equity. So i learned early that working for a salary was a dead end for what I was interested in.

That’s no different than a lawyer. I can calculate any lawyer’s total income all the way out. And I’ve hired lawyers when I’ve said to them come work with me and you’ll make your x amount of money and you’ll have equity and be able to liquidate it.

And that has a certain enticement to people — it certainly does to me as a serial entrepreneur. So I did it. A whole bunch of times. And the last one I was very fortunate. It gave me the ability, when my kids were born, to not work and travel the world with my kids. I was all over every major continent with my children just taking a break and having fun. I came back having spent all my money and having no nest egg. I went right back into the game again because I felt most comfortable there and I rebuilt it.

Except this time I inverted the model. It wasn’t about the money, it was about spending time with my family and other things. So I now know how much I need to make. When I achieve it I stop what I’m doing and spend more time with my kids. That has allowed me to get off the treadmill of always wanting more and more and more and realize that there are other currencies in life — family, friends, and health. Those are just as important.

So if my goal used to be make as many millions as i could, maybe now it’s to make a million, live well, educate your kids well, and spend time with your family and spend time with the things that you want to do. And that’s when i started the Canada-Arizona Business Council and became absolutely passionate about helping to internationalize Arizona. I spend a lot time doing that. You know, I’m appointed on the Commerce level by the Secretary of Commerce of the US to help with Canada, at least on Arizona’s exports. I work with previous governor Janet Napolitano, the current governor, to help them understand where they need to take this state into the international realm. And now, Canada being one of the largest foreign direct investors in the States, and the largest in Arizona, Canada becomes very relevant in this state. So I get to help back and interface with everyone in Arizona who wants to be international and everyone who is coming down here.

All of this is very interesting. Are there any final words that you want say to lawyers entering the job market in the near future?

Absolutely. Don’t get stereotyped into just going and working for a major law firm. If you are a lawyer with any sense of entrepreneurial feel, do it. Don’t just go in and start practicing law and get on the treadmill. We have enough lawyers that do that. What we need now are lawyers to get more entrepreneurial, more serial, to bring experience to a more pedestrian level to help with, and/or become, one of those people that creates the next whatever. Don’t just be someone who is at the table giving advice. Be the table.

Interview taken September 16, 2013.

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This entry was posted on October 17, 2013 by .
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