We continue our regular feature, Upfront & Personal, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.
Marcela Kirberger, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer, and Corporate Secretary for Roche Diagnostics Corp., spoke with Rose Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about the value of diplomacy, compliance skills, and the joys of being a mentor.
Rose Ors: What life moments have defined you?
Marcela Kirberger: When I came to the U.S., I was 23 years old and had earned a law degree from the Catholic University in Argentina. I had decided not to go back to law school in the States because I was married and ready to start a family. Later, I joined a large telecommunications company as an environmental law paralegal. It was in this role that I had a defining moment.
In preparation for an upcoming client meeting, the lead in-house lawyer on the case asked me to review 12 boxes of documents and summarize the case’s critical issues. After spending days going through the documents, I provided the summary as requested. At the meeting, the client began to ask questions the attorney was unable to answer. I knew the answers and I offered them.
On the walk back to our hotel, the lawyer said to me, “Marcela, I know you’re a lawyer in Argentina, but you need to remember your place here. You’re just a paralegal. You cannot show the client that you know the case better than me.” The comments mortified and frustrated me. They also prompted me to act. The next morning, I called Rutgers Law School and got all the information I needed to go back to law school.
I do not know whether I would have gone back to law school had it not been for my hurt at being treated so poorly. But the experience taught me something about myself: I would not let others define me or tell me who I was and what I was capable of doing.
Rose Ors: What sparked your initial interest in becoming a lawyer?
Marcela Kirberger: I have always valued the ability to bring people to the table to find meaningful solutions. Growing up, I read a lot about international relations and the power of diplomacy. I was impressed by how diplomats made things happen and defused tough situations through negotiation, persuasion, and influence. I wanted to develop these skills and use these tools not as a diplomat, but as a lawyer.
Rose Ors: How essential is the ability to persuade and influence in your legal career?
Marcela Kirberger: It has been crucial. I was fortunate to learn these skills from great bosses and mentors. Interestingly, I found that honing these skills was even more essential in my role as a global chief compliance officer. I am a much more effective lawyer by having been a successful compliance officer.
Rose Ors: How so?
Marcela Kirberger: Moving from legal to compliance completely changed my perspective about what you need to succeed in both roles. In a corporation, the business side views lawyers as subject-matter experts and is willing — for the most part — to defer to such expertise. Moreover, legal questions are viewed as having answers that are more black and white than in compliance.
In compliance, the emphasis often shifts from what is legal to do to what is right to do. In most instances, the group making these values-based decisions is composed of individuals who come to the table with their own views of what is right and wrong. Reconciling these different values in order to establish a common understanding of what’s at stake is possible only if you can persuade and influence the members of the group.
Rose Ors: How has your compliance experience made you a better lawyer?
Marcela Kirberger: I have become a better and more emphatic listener. Developing a common understanding requires you to listen closely to others and understand what moves them. I am usually driven to act, so I regularly have to ask myself, “Am I listening enough?” Compliance also sharpened my focus on deeply understanding the business’s strategic priorities and developing a competitive and sustainable framework to achieve them.
Rose Ors: Any other career-changing moments?
Marcela Kirberger: Yes — leaving Novartis after 11 years to take on the role of global general counsel of Leica Microsystems, a Danaher company. Danaher has a very strong “continuous improvement” culture and metrics-intensive approach to their businesses that focuses on processes and performance.
There is a motto at Danaher that continues to resonate with me: “It is about the problem, not the person.” The idea that problems get solved by people coming together in a structured way, getting to the root cause, and putting in place sustainable solutions was refreshing. At Leica, I realized there are many practical and business-relevant key performance indicators we could use in the legal department to show the value that we add — and also, that we could use metrics and language that are standard in the rest of the company.
Rose Ors: What are you passionate about?
Marcela Kirberger: I enjoy being a mentor. Besides mentoring those on my legal team, I am active in mentoring and supporting minorities, Latinos, and women in the companies where I have worked. At Roche, I co-chair the Women Leadership Initiative, and I am active in our efforts to expand opportunities for Latinos. And, of course, I am passionate about my family. I am never happier or laugh more than when my husband and I are with our children.
Rose Ors: Who inspires you?
Marcela Kirberger: That is easy. My in-laws, Brian and Judy Kirberger. They are the most selfless and wisest humans I have ever met. They live in a tiny 250-person village in Western Pennsylvania and never really traveled much. Yet, they are the most open-minded and evolved people. They are role models for humility, empathy, and inclusiveness. They have inspired me to be a better person from the moment I met them and have had a significant impact on how I view the world and relate to others.
Rose Ors: Now, for the final question. Besides their legal acumen, how can outside law firms add value to you and your legal department?
Marcela Kirberger: They can add value in two ways. First, proactively providing us information on external trends and developments that are business-relevant to what we do. Second, and more importantly, offering appropriately calibrating risk.
Please do not offer me a foolproof, waterproof, bulletproof solution — it may be too restrictive. Understand our business and risk appetite, so that we can jointly develop a smart and practical solution. Both of these suggestions require law firms to invest in deeply understanding us and our business.
This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.