A Q&A with Our New Chief Legal Officer

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Published on March 27th, 2013  |  Discuss This Article  

Wisla Heneghan

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

Earlier this year we welcomed Wisla Heneghan to The Nature Conservancy as chief legal officer. Wisla oversees the work of our Legal Department, which operates globally to provide a full range of legal services — such as contracts, litigation, negotiation and compliance — in support of the Conservancy’s mission.

Wisla joins the Conservancy from Staples, Inc. where she served as Vice President and Associate General Counsel, leading a large team of attorneys and contract specialists, including the legal teams supporting the company’s retail, business-to-business and online operations. Prior to joining Staples, Wisla was in private legal practice with the law firm of Goodwin Procter where she served in the firm’s national real estate group, and the law firm of Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo where she practiced in the firm’s commercial litigation, criminal litigation and real estate groups.

Wisla is a graduate of the Boston University School of Law and the State University of New York at New Paltz. Wisla was born in Minas Gerais, Brazil and raised in Brazil and New York.

Wisla and I recently discussed her transition from the business sector to the nonprofit sector and how the law plays a role in conservation.

Mark: What attracted you to The Nature Conservancy?

Wisla: I’m often asked that question, and more particularly, why I made the switch to the nonprofit sector. I can say that what attracted me to the Conservancy is what I think attracts everyone to come here: it’s a place filled with experts and dedicated people with an incredibly important mission. I had come to a point in my career — and my life — where I started reevaluating how I wanted to spend the rest of my career. My role at the Conservancy allows me to do what I love to do — practice law — in a way that makes a difference. I can’t think of a better way to spend my career.

Mark: Tell me how you view your role as chief legal officer or general counsel.

Wisla: The general counsel has the dual roles of leading the legal team as well as serving as a senior adviser to the management of the Conservancy in a way that goes way beyond legal skills and expertise. I am a firm believer that an organization of our size, complexity and goals can only reach its full potential with the support of an expert, proactive, practical and strategic legal team. All members of the legal team need to be able to partner for solutions with others in the organization, fully understand their goals, and strategize to reach those goals.

Mark: Conservancy lawyers have long played an important role in our land acquisition efforts. What other important roles do our legal staff play?

Wisla: Because our role is to help the Conservancy achieve its mission while appropriately assessing and addressing opportunities and risks, we play a critical part is just about all that the Conservancy does: marketing efforts, various types of corporate engagements and working with national and foreign governments, all while complying with the very specific laws applicable to nonprofits.

Mark: How do you see the law playing a role in addressing some of the biggest challenges facing The Nature Conservancy?

Wisla: I think one of the biggest challenges facing the Conservancy is its significant global growth. For many years we’ve done work outside the U.S., but as that grows the challenges become greater. If we want to make a difference worldwide — which we do — we need to really understand how to best work as a truly global organization. As we move deeper into the global space we need to be bold, but also careful and, most importantly, knowledgeable. We need to know what we’re doing, why it’s important and how to make it happen, and not be held back by not understanding the legal framework under which we are operating, or not putting the necessary resources behind our work.

Mark: How do you see the responsibilities of the Legal staff evolving as our work around the world expands?

Wisla: It will be all about acquiring legal expertise in and comfort with operating across boundaries. To provide expert and practical legal guidance in any jurisdiction, we will need to understand the legal, financial, political and cultural framework of that jurisdiction. It will also be important for us to determine best practices that can be shared across the global that will help us be more efficient. These are exciting times for the Conservancy and the legal team is looking forward to meeting the challenges that each new opportunity brings.

[Image: Wisla Heneghan. Image source: Mark Godfrey/TNC]

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