Anthony Yoo – W.R. Grace & Co.
Whether in its products or in the office, the chemistry is always evolving at W.R. Grace & Co. One does play off the other in reaching the aspirations of this international chemical leader.
The chemistry inside the legal department was ripe for change when Standard Industries bought Grace in September 2021, taking it private after nearly 70 years on the New York Stock Exchange. So determined Anthony Yoo, whom the company recruited from Danaher as its new senior vice president, general counsel and secretary. This essentially being the dawn of a new era, Yoo set out to rebuild the legal department as a proactive and holistic partner to the business.
And he knew that diversity would be a critical part of this rebuild.
“We didn’t mandate a result, but we mandated a truly diverse slate,” Yoo tells Vanguard in January from his Columbia, Maryland office he says. “Diversity is extremely important in a legal department because we manage questions and issues relating to a wide spectrum of people, geographies and backgrounds. People’s perspectives are tied to their experiences, and if your team includes people with a wide range of experiences, you have a team with a fuller understanding of the questions and issues they face.”
He’s made significant strides toward that wide spectrum. Yoo’s 27-member legal staff includes 13 of his hires and increased representation among women, Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Jewish attorneys. However, he reminds us that diversity transcends gender, ethnic and racial lines.
Also, in this multicultural roster are more lawyers who served in the military and who grew up overseas and from almost every region of the United States. For the first time, there’s a lawyer based in Europe. He’s increased the number of lawyers with regulatory and enforcement agency experience. The team includes several professionals who started their legal career in South America.
As an Asian-American, Yoo is familiar with the harmful potential of stereotypes—his ethnicity is often stereotyped for excelling only in math and sciences and fit for careers as engineers or doctors rather than lawyers.
“We are often perceived as struggling with leadership or soft skills,” he notes. “There’s a lot of history around that stereotype in the United States, and I’ve worked to dispel it for many years.”
A human touch
Yoo would seem the right person to do so. The son of Korean immigrants who came to the United States with a few suitcases and limited resources, he excelled in biochemistry as a University of Virginia undergrad and was initially a premed major. But even then, he embraced the humanities. He pursued a minor in English and delved into theater and art history on the side.
“I was interested in science and how people express themselves and interact with others,” he says. “I wanted to know what makes people tick. And to prove that I could excel in both areas.”
For that, he stayed at the University of Virginia to pursue his law degree. After graduating in 1992, Yoo served five-year stretches at Fried Frank and Covington & Burling, often handling science-related litigation in New York City and Washington, D.C., and earned certification as a registered patent attorney.
Yoo’s combination of scientific and humanities background proved invaluable in-house, both during his nine-year stint at tobacco behemoth Altria’s headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, and his decade at Danaher where he ascended to vice president and general counsel of its Leica Biosystems and Mammotome operating companies and established and chaired the conglomerate’s first Asian-American employee resource group. Soon, he’ll celebrate his second anniversary with Grace, which could be his most far-reaching role.
Bridging the info gap
“Think of all the large and complex companies with whom Grace does business,” Yoo says. “Our legal staff has to understand the business and products, communicate with engineers and technical people, and make it meaningful for judges, regulators, business professionals and sometimes the general public. We’ve got to have the ability to bridge all that.”
And to do so on a limited budget. Since taking over legal, Yoo has arranged monthly reviews for tracking and managing expenses and instilled an approach that has decreased core outside counsel spending by 15 percent in less than two years. If the team overspends for consecutive months, it investigates countermeasures to get back on track. He emphasizes that just like any other department, the legal team is expected to deliver bang for the buck.
He also emphasizes the need to partner effectively with the larger Grace organization. “I don’t like when the legal department functions like an inside law firm and just answers the legal questions presented at its door,” Yoo says. “I want our team to think as a full business partner and have business discussions informed by legal expertise so we can collaborate with internal customers to achieve the best outcome.”
During the second half of last year, he instituted a legal department survey with internal business partners. The initial returns were very positive. He’ll keep doing it every six months to look continuously for areas to improve. It’s all part of the wide-ranging responsibility of leading the legal team at this multinational, where there’s always a myriad of pending issues.
It’s a different approach with Grace off the NYSE and under the ownership of the New York-based and family-owned Standard Industries. The public filings and quarterly focus have given way to more interaction between the C-suiters, owners, and board members.
“The information flow is more frequent, and the decisions are made faster,” says Yoo, who’s now part of publicly- and privately-owned companies. “Thanks to Standard’s long-term vision, we have a greater ability to strategize around the long term, instead of the quarter.”
Strength in diversity
Home life also fulfills Yoo and his wife Susan, whom he met as a private lawyer in New York City. They’re empty-nesters in Potomac, Maryland, as well as proud parents of three grown children: a lawyer son, a daughter in medical school, and a younger daughter making strides as an actress, writer, singer and dancer in New York City.
While the couple enjoys the cultural and recreational opportunities in the Greater Washington, D.C., area, there’s not always much time for that, what with Grace active on so many fronts in Maryland, nationwide and worldwide. For Yoo, it calls for a deft legal touch—and more.
“I joke that what I do day to day isn’t primarily the practice of law,” he says. “It’s the practice of people and business.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Winter II 2024 Edition here.
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