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From bench to boardroom

George E. Wolf III

George E. Wolf III reflects on move from circuit judge to architectural firm general counsel. (Submitted photo)

Nothing about George E. Wolf III’s transition from the Jackson County Circuit Court bench to his in-house role at HNTB has been typical.

For one: His first day on the job as senior vice president and general counsel — March 17 — coincided with the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That whole week was just crazy,” he said. “Everybody felt like the plague was wafting through the streets or something . . . the company went remote the day before I started. I came to an empty office. Basically, it’s been a strange onboarding process.”

Wolf’s first months at HNTB — the Kansas City-headquartered infrastructure design firm — were not what anyone could have anticipated when he announced his retirement from the bench in December 2019.

At first, he largely spent his time reviewing local and state orders affecting the company’s 65 offices across the country, as well as return-to-work plans and evolving mask requirements, he said.

“It seemed that was all I was doing for the first few months,” he said.

While business has looked different in 2020, the company’s embrace of remote meetings has been a positive development for him, Wolf said.

“I ended up meeting more people through the company and getting to know them better,” he said.

Return to engineering

Not only were his pandemic-related working conditions unusual, but the job itself was unexpected, Wolf said. Prior to his appointment to the bench in August 2017, he’d represented engineering firms during his 32-year career at Shook, Hardy & Bacon in Kansas City.

One of those firms was HNTB, which he’d represented since 1993 as outside counsel. Before he joined the company, HNTB had no general counsel, he said. Instead, while he was at Shook, he effectively did the work of a general counsel from outside.

Wolf said he wasn’t looking for a new job when the company approached him to discuss creating a general counsel role — and to ask about his interest in filling it. At that time, he planned to retire from the bench much later, in his late 60s, he said.

“It was an opportunity to work with a company I was very familiar with — obviously very well-respected — and to basically create the law department,” he said.

While the offer tantalized him, the decision to leave the court was a tough one, he said. Being a judge was “an opportunity of a lifetime for me,” he said, and he enjoyed his work there and the relationships he’d developed.

“It was just an opportunity I couldn’t say no to,” he said of his move to HNTB. “I was very impressed with the current leadership. They were people I kind of grew up with, figuratively and literally.”

Wolf noted that he knew one of the company’s leaders from growing up in the same neighborhood and another from engineering school, both of which add to his familiarity with the company.

His move is also a homecoming of sorts in terms of his own background. Rather than growing up in a family of lawyers, he grew up in a family of engineers.

He first followed in their footsteps, studying civil engineering as an undergraduate student at the University of Missouri. His path diverged, however, when he went on to study at Northwestern University School of Law, from which he graduated in 1986.

Part of what drew him to Shook was its role in representing plaintiffs in the aftermath of the Hyatt Regency skywalk collapse in 1981. A structural defect caused the collapse of skywalks at the Kansas City hotel during a tea dance, killing 114 people and injuring more than 200 others.

One of Wolf’s undergraduate professors had been involved in the investigation of the tragedy, and Wolf said he was interested in Shook after seeing its work on the case. When he started working for Shook, he had the opportunity to work on an appeal of the license-revocation action against the hotel’s structural engineers, he said.

‘Invaluable’ experience

As general counsel, Wolf oversees HNTB’s legal department, including two direct reports: the company’s non-attorney corporate risk officer and an assistant general counsel.

The corporate risk officer oversees the risk-management services department, which handles insurance matters, management of claims and litigation, and audit and compliance functions, he said. The company’s assistant general counsel oversees the company’s legal services group, which includes contract review, change-order management and ongoing projects.

The legal services group is staffed with five attorneys, as well as contract and claim specialists. Wolf said part of his job has been navigating the realignment and development of those previously separate functions, which are now under his office.

When it comes to his day-to-day duties as general counsel, Wolf said the experience he gained as a judge has been invaluable.

“Being on the other side of the bench, you really start understanding a lot of things that I don’t think most lawyers do,” he said.

Wolf said he came to see the importance of brevity and preparation, and of knowing the rules and the law.

“Working with the outside law firms, hiring for claims and litigation, just understanding what judges are looking for, what juries think about, just helps me in terms of evaluating litigation and kind of steering the lawyers in directions — knowing what motions to file, which ones are a waste of time,” he said.

Making the transition to a corporate setting has been a new experience, Wolf said, particularly because he’d never worked for a large corporation before. There is new corporate lingo to master, and also a new culture, he noted.

“There’s this kind of different mindset. It’s a very professional organization,” he said. “Law firms are a partnership run by lawyers who don’t always have a business background. In a corporation, you have highly skilled administrative people.”

Also different in his new job: the need to better understand the inner workings of his company.

“I didn’t have to understand the finances of the company when I was working as outside counsel,” he said. “That’s a lot more important these days.”