Maria Fernandez – CUP Fellow Spotlight – October 2011

What is your occupation and how did you come to work in this field?

I am Senior Counsel, Trust and Compliance Officer, Global Compliance Programs.  In this position,  my team and I manage the elements, education and communications aspects of IBM’s global compliance program.     I spend much time coordinating with the regional Trust and Compliance Officers who are located in many of the countries where IBM operates; researching new developments in this area and benchmarking with other companies.   I am responsible for ensuring our program meets the requirements of an “effective” compliance program, often dictated by settlements entered into by various global corporations with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.   I am also working on measuring the effectiveness of our programs.

My career at IBM began over nineteen years ago when I joined IBM in San Jose, California at its hard disk drive plant after graduating from law school.   After three years in California, I returned to New York where I remained until 2005 in various transactional roles.  In 2005, my family and I relocated to Sao Paulo, Brasil for almost two years.   In Sao Paulo, I continued my role as the Latin America Regional Counsel, where my team and I managed the legal issues in over eleven countries and an exclusive Business Partner in Central America.   I relocated to New York in 2007 where I supported our North American operations before moving over to the Compliance organization in 2010.  My career at IBM has allowed me to learn various aspects of the law; work in different divisions; and visit various countries.   Thankfully, every new challenge has enhanced my skill development.

I have always known since I was young I wanted to be a lawyer even though I lacked awareness of what lawyers really did.   An event with my family when I was younger made me determined to know the “rules” and not allow others to interpret rules and laws for me and my family.

What is the biggest challenge of your work?

It is a new and evolving area of the law and more and more countries are strengthening their laws or increasing their enforcement of anti-corruption cases.   For examples, there are few litigated cases in the U.S. so you have to rely on vaguely worded settlement agreements for guidance in the US.   It means constantly researching, re-evaluating our program and offerings, and following new developments in this area carefully.    It is a more proactive role than I have experienced in the past and I am enjoying that aspect of this position.

What is your proudest achievement?

Many have mentioned their professional achievements but I wanted to focus on my personal life.   I have three children, ranging in age from twenty five to four years old.  I am very proud of my roles as a lawyer and as a mother.  However, between work, husband, children and my non-profit work, balancing my personal and professional life is not always possible.   Being a CUP Fellow this year has added another layer to that.    So my motto is that my life is a pendulum and not a balance. It is my job to make sure it does not swing too far outside of the acceptable zone.   My achievement is accomplishing that most of the time.

What leaders, thinkers or doers do you admire most?

In considering this response, many came to mind.   I have been fortunate to be surrounded by many amazing people who exhibit attributes I admire and in many cases have emulated.   All of them are different but yet share similar values.    Some of the common elements are passion for their job; willingness to take on new risks; taking on difficult challenges in a rational and solutions orientated manner; giving back to the community; coaching their direct reports and mentors; and unfortunately being Type A +.    Many have been managers or friends or mentors or leaders of organization that I have been affiliated with.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

I see myself in a more senior leadership position, perhaps managing a division or as general counsel at a smaller company.   If not at IBM, then at a company like IBM that innovates to make a difference, gives back to the community and does the right thing.   My multiple positions at IBM have given me a very broad exposure to various areas of the law.

What would be your advice to young people who want their careers and lives to have an impact?

You have to follow your passion, whether at your job or in your activities outside of work.    I am very involved in getting people of color to consider law school and being a lawyer as well as other education initiatives.    You can see that in my involvement with Latino Justice -PRLDEF as a Board Member and my participation as a Member of the John Jay Pre-Law Institute Advisory Board.   I am an alum of the Latino Justice - PRLDEF program and believe that it is my obligation to help others who are considering pursing that career - - it is my way to give back what was given to me.    So you should enhance your skills and then decide how you can use that for the better good.

Additionally, do not shy away from risk such as taking on a difficult position or relocating to another city or country.    The worst that can happen is you fail and move on.   The reality is that you always learn something regardless of whether you fail or succeed.