Rick Palmore is prepared for his new challenge as senior vice president, general counsel and secretary
Known for his quick legal intellect, hard work and easy demeanor, Roderick A. Palmore has been able to translate those skills into profitable business relationships. In 1996, a meeting with Sara Lee's General Counsel Janet Langford Kelly presented him with a golden opportunity to do what he did so often as a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal – go out and get business.
Kelly persuaded Palmore to leave Sonnenschein and join her at Sara Lee as Vice President and Deputy General Counsel with responsibility for managing a network of senior attorneys at Sara Lee's operating units. This summer, when Kelly announced she was leaving Sara Lee to join the Kellogg Co. as executive vice president for business development and general counsel, Sara Lee immediately named Palmore as its new Senior Vice President, General Counsel and Secretary.
After spending more than 15 years in private practice, the challenge of leaving the law firm culture at Sonnenschein made the transition to Sara Lee difficult. "It was a tough decisioti," says Palmore. "Quite frankly, it could not have been a better firm environment for me, professionally and personally. However, at Sara Lee, I am able to get involved in more wide-ranging legal and business issues than I did as a litigator."
Palmore's new challenge is to excel as chief legal expert and senior officer for Sara Lee, a global packaged food and consumer products company that earns more than $20 billion in annual revenues from such leading brands as Sara Lee, Douwe Egberts, Hillshire Farm, Hanes, Coach and Playtex. He's responsible for a departmental budget in excess of $10 million and management of an outside legal fee budget of more than $14 million. Those who know Palmore know he will approach his new position with the same dedication that he has shown in meeting all other challenges in his life.
Palmore was one of five children growing up in Monroeville, Pa, a small mill town in suburban Pittsburgh. Although his father worked as a building superintendent and chef, and his mother worked at home, the Palmores provided each child with the opportunity to go to college.
As a small child, Palmore was instinctively drawn to the legal profession. "While my friends were talking about doing other things, I always knew I wanted to head toward the law," he says. From his parents, he learned some of the tenets that have set the course for his professional and personal life – the importance of education and a strong belief that all things are possible. Taking his father's words that " education is something they can't take away from you," to heart, Palmore excelled scholastically, obtaining his B.A. from Yale University in 1974 and his J.D. from the University of Chicago Law School in 1977.
After beginning his practice with a mid-size Pittsburgh law firm, Rick returned to Chicago as an assistant U. S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois. During his tenure, his most notable experience included the civil prosecution of a contact-lens manufacturer that introduced its bifocal contact lens into the marketplace without first getting approval from the Food & Drug Administration. On behalf of the FDA, Palmore succeeded in having the products pulled from the market until FDA approval was obtained. This was a considerable feat for the young litigator whose opposing counsel was not only 15 years his senior, but also the then-president of the Chicago Bar Association.
In 1982, he joined Wildman, Harrold, Allen & Dixon, where he became its first African-American partner. In 1993, Palmore joined Sonnenschein's Chicago office, practicing principally in products liability and other types of complex litigation in many jurisdictions around the country. One of his most significant experiences was his work for General Motors Corp. in products and products-related matters. "I was invited to Detroit to meet with Harry J. Pearce, the then-General counsel and current vice chairman of GM. Harry was dedicated to building a team of talented, hardworking and diverse lawyers to assist GM as outside counsel," recalls Palmore. Palmore returned to Chicago with the GM deals in hand and continued doing substantial work for the company until his move to Sara Lee. "I have tremendous respect for the standards held by Harry Pearce and I am committed to keeping those same high standards at Sara Lee," he says.
Palmore also demonstrated his business acumen when McDonald's turned to Sonnenschein to serve as coordinating counsel for the famous hot coffee cases. It was Palmore who created the blueprint for outside counsel to handle the cases in a coordinated fashion. "Rick was able to integrate his knowledge of the company and knowledge of the law to produce a template for putting these types of cases together," says Shelby Yastrow, former general counsel to McDonald's Corp.
There have been several key people in Palmore's career and certainly Janet Kelly is one of those individuals. It was Kelly's energy, intelligence and persuasiveness that drew Palmore to Sara Lee. After working with her since 1996, he greatly appreciates the opportunity she presented to him and credits her ability to "set the table" for him as being one of the keys to his future success as general counsel.
The people at Sara Lee know a good thing when they've found it. And Palmore is happy to take on the new challenge: "I think anytime you have an opportunity like this, it's such an honor and lets you work on so many interesting and exciting things. I feel very fortunate to be able to have this opportunity."
Duane C. Quaini is chairman of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.
From the November 1999 issue of Diversity & The Bar®