She Brings Good Things to Light
GE associate general counsel Janine Dascenzo operates at a higher frequency
Published in Corporate Counsel Edition® 2008 magazine
on December 1, 2008
Updated on June 11, 2009
Janine Dascenzo specializes in “bet the company” cases. Considering that General Electric is ranked one of the world’s largest companies—one where a surprise earnings announcement can send global stock markets spinning—those can be big bets.
As GE’s associate general counsel, Dascenzo divides her time between hands-on legal work and broader corporate projects, like cross-business legal initiatives and managing relationships with outside law firms. She also jumps between the company’s global headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., and its Park Avenue offices in Manhattan.
Not surprisingly, she’s a little hard to reach. She’s always rushing off somewhere—to catch a plane, or to respond to a situation that developed overnight. She understands that time and attention to detail can make all the difference. “Very early on in my career, I learned that in the law the devil truly is in the details,” Dascenzo says. “Outside of good judgment and critical thinking, there is no magical formula for being a great lawyer—it really is just a lot of hard work.”
Dascenzo grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, the fifth of six kids in a close-knit Catholic family. She followed three of her older siblings to the University of Cincinnati, where she played four years of varsity tennis and served as student body president—the youngest ever elected and only the second female. Shy by nature, she learned to be assertive at home. “Being from such a big family, you learn to speak up,” she says. “Otherwise you might not get your dinner. Especially seconds.”
With plans to become a litigator, Dascenzo went directly to law school and finished 11th in her class. She joined Schwartz, Kelm, Warren & Rubenstein, a large Columbus, Ohio firm; and after three years switched to Squire, Sanders & Dempsey to focus on commercial litigation.
“What I did at those firms was take everything I could, every piece of work I could, because I wanted to learn everything and didn’t want to be left out of anything,” she says. “I ended up being the highest biller of the associates for most of the years I was in private practice. I loved what I was doing.”
As a commercial litigator, she had regular face time with in-house legal teams around the country. “In doing that, I got to see how a business works, and how the in-house lawyers were really part of the team, part of making the business great. That kind of continuity was really attractive to me.” Unlike firm attorneys, who were called in on a problem-by-problem basis, corporate attorneys seemed to be involved in daily business activities, helping the company grow within the boundaries of the law.
When GE recruited her a few years later, Dascenzo jumped at the opportunity. The corporate behemoth, a pioneer in practical compliance and ethics, was known for bringing its lawyers to the negotiating table. It expected them to become experts in the details of finance, accounting, controllership and technology; learn how the business worked, what key measurements GE used, what the competitive landscape looked like and how to read a balance sheet. It was also known for hiring top talent. “I knew I was going to be working with a world-class team,” Dascenzo says.
She started out in GE’s aviation division, doing commercial litigation and internal investigations with a team of 60 lawyers. Five years later, she moved to GE Fanuc, the company’s factory automation business based in Charlottesville, Va. There, as general counsel of a much smaller team, she was responsible for a broad range of legal issues.
“We had 3,000 employees in 12 different countries, so I had to worry about everything from export controls to labor and employment issues to joint ventures with companies in China,” she says. “As a litigator, I’d learned a lot about how deals can go bad, and I had a fair background in several areas, but I was by no means a domain expert in all these different practice areas. But that’s how it is when you’re with a small business. You have to learn how to think quickly on the best information possible and know when to ask for help.”
In 2005, after a few years with GE Fanuc, Dascenzo got a call from Brackett Denniston, GE’s former head of litigation who had just been named general counsel. He wanted her to help him lead a team of 1,300 attorneys worldwide.
“I knew Janine as a very able litigator, and I was always impressed with her can-do spirit and her leadership ability, and so I naturally thought of her,” Denniston says. “She’s a wonderful person to work with. She has an optimistic view of the world. She’s balanced in her judgment and very thoughtful, and she’s a great listener. And finally, she’s an executor, which is important in a job like this.”
Dascenzo moved to GE’s Fairfield, Conn., global headquarters, eager to work with Denniston, whom she calls “one of the best lawyers in the world—a great leader and a great teacher.” It was an especially interesting time, as Denniston had replaced Ben Heineman, a man Dascenzo refers to as a “living legend.”
In 18 years at GE, Heineman transformed the GE legal department, changing the role of in-house counsel from a second-tier career choice to a premier option. His vision of corporate attorneys as business partners spread throughout the broader industry, as GE attorneys were hired to lead other Fortune 500 companies.
In the fall of 2007, Dascenzo was promoted to her current post, associate general counsel. Now approximately half of her time is spent in Connecticut, continuing her work with Denniston. The rest is spent in New York, working on the high-profile litigation and investigation cases that she thrives on. “Like all big cases with significant exposure, they can be pressure cookers but they can be extremely rewarding,” she says. “They’re fast-moving, intense and fascinating. You have to be able to get facts quickly, and to assess the company’s legal risk based on those facts. You have to be at the top of your game on so many levels.”
Early in her career, the bulk of her cases involved traditional commercial issues, like intellectual property or contract disputes. Today, in a post-Enron world, most cases relate to compliance and ethics issues, including government and SEC investigations. It’s a shift that she has seen in the industry at large. (For confidentiality reasons, she won’t discuss any of her cases.)
GE’s key business objective, says Dascenzo, is sustainable growth—and the company’s lawyers play a unique, protective role. “Each year, we promise investors double-digit growth,” she says. “That’s like growing a Google or a Nike every single year. Our lawyers are expected to frame a legal risk as a business risk and come to the table with solutions. They’re expected to have a seat at the table as part of the client strategy team while at the same time serving as guardian of the company’s reputation.”
Recently, Dascenzo moved to lower Manhattan—a high-energy place for a high-energy person. This past summer she found time to play tennis and drink wine with friends on her rooftop deck.
But, as it has often been in her life, her primary focus is excellence and hard work. “I’m so lucky to have chosen a profession where I absolutely love getting up every day and going to work,” she says.