Terra Potter (whose middle name is Cotta – IHL has seen the proof) proudly proclaims on LinkedIn that she originally hails from a cornfield outside Chicago and, while many lawyers claim to have had an unconventional path into a legal career, hers has been more so than most. Growing up in Rochelle, Illinois, she started working in kitchens, first as a dishwasher at the age of 14, before working her way up the cooking ladder, and so set her sights on a culinary career. A move to Hyde Park, New York and The Culinary Institute of America at the age of 17 had the unexpected consequence of a passion for the law.
‘The penultimate class was restaurant law, which is actually just like contract law’, Potter recalls. ‘It was so cool and the world made sense through it. That sparked the joy for law in me.’
Moving back home, ‘because America and debt’, Potter’s road-to-Damascus moment occurred completely in keeping with her naturally energetic personality. ‘I reflected and realised that I needed to do something that would challenge me and engage my brain more than cooking. I woke my parents up at two in the morning, burst into their room and announced: “I’m going to be a lawyer.”’
Potter completed her undergraduate degree in America and came to London to do the GDL and LPC at BPP. She recalls the interview for her training contract at Ince & Co with Jeremy Farr and Steven Fox with some mortification. ‘I really wanted to be a maritime lawyer, because it was all crashing boats and I thought that was cool. My mother called me after the interview and asked: “How did it go?” I said it was a train wreck.’
Ed: ‘More like a shipwreck?’
Potter: ‘Oh god, I didn’t think of that. Exactly!’
Despite this perceived disaster, Potter secured her training contract at Ince, where she qualified in 2006 and garnered experience doing oil and gas litigation. She resonated with the clients she worked with in the sector and ‘loved the vibe of the people working on the rigs’.
She offers a humorous analogy about her experiences working with the different personalities across sectors. ‘If you had three children, maritime would be the oldest, renewables is the middle child and oil & gas is the youngest. If you said “go to bed”, the maritime kid would say “OK”. Renewables would say, “OK, but can you explain why I have to go to bed?”; oil and gas will stand at the top of the stairs, stomp their foot and be like,” but I don’t want to, I don’t have school tomorrow!” And you’re like, “oh, you don’t actually”. So it causes you to rethink. Everybody should have people they work with who cause them to question why they are doing something.’
Potter’s decision to go in-house in 2012 was partly driven by the pressures of having ‘three children in a 60 square metre flat in East London’, and it took her to GL Group and to Kuala Lumpur, where she became the maritime and energy company’s first lawyer in the Asia Pacific region. ‘I remember walking into my boss’ office, Gesa Heinacher-Lindemann – incredible, great leader, strong boss, super kick-ass woman – and saying, “I think you’ve made a mistake. The head of legal for the Middle East and the head of Legal for Americas, they’re 12-years’ PQE and I’m three-and-a-half years’ PQE.” She said: “It’s fine, you’re fine.”’
Excusing the pun, there were times when her learning curve was not all plain sailing. ‘I remember drafting an email, which I would never be allowed to send as an associate at a law firm, something so meaningful. It was a review of a contract in Korea and I read it and I wasn’t going to hit send because I was terrified. I read it three or four times over and I sat there for a while and finally I went, “you either hit send or you go ask for your old job back. Those are your options”. And so with terror in my heart, I hit send and with the next email I hit send. I made errors along the way, like anybody, but I corrected them as I went.’
Potter found being the only lawyer in the region ‘terrifying, but brilliant’ and describes her boss fondly as a supportive influence on her career. ‘Whenever I thought I’d hit my wall, she said: “No you’re fine – for all these reasons” and I realised I hadn’t hit that wall and it was fine.’
GL Group then merged with Norwegian company DNV and with the combination Dag Ove Solsvik became head of Asia Pac, ‘absolutely the best person to lead the team’, and proved to be influential on her own management style.
Despite the occasional differing of opinions, she admired him for ‘showing up as a human; being supportive, straightforward and transparent; not grabbing glory; making sure that everyone had interesting work; and reaching a resolution positively without criticising the individual.’
Potter’s return to London in 2019 saw her take on a role managing DNV GL Group’s global contract adviser function and framework, rolling out and building on work she had done for the Asia Pac region.
She then decided the time was right to take ‘a sabbatical of nothing’ for three months with the intention of taking a break with no specific plans in mind. The question is, did she use the time to indulge her love of computer games? ‘If I’d played video games, that would have been a win. But instead I got super ill; I got a new job. I moved house, I took the opportunity to squeeze it all in.’
Fortuitously around that time, Potter was approached for an in-house role at US-headquartered industrial materials company Hexcel and – while she loved the challenges and complexity of oil & gas services and advisory, as well as the experience of seeing a company through a merger – her head was turned by the promise of new possibilities.
‘When I was on my sabbatical, I decided I wanted to work for a company that makes stuff, and I was contacted for a role that was essentially general counsel for the industrial business for the UK, Asia and certain other geographies. I looked into it and found Hexcel was making really cool and super-advanced stuff, so I joined in September 2019. What really appealed was having this very traditional company, in aerospace and space and defence, but they have to be so progressive on the tech side.’
To say the next year was ‘interesting’ is something of an understatement. A sense of déjà vu, perhaps, as in January 2020 Hexcel and Woodward, an aircraft and industrial parts supplier, inked a merger valued at more than $6bn. Timing is everything, of course, and shortly afterwards coronavirus struck. ‘It was all suddenly about force majeure, supply chains, physical protection of employees. Everybody was just winging it and no-one really knew.’ However, a philosophical attitude born of years of experience stood her in good stead. ‘You get really comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not knowing, talking and working through what you can on the fly and figuring it out. I really appreciated all the in-house voices chorusing that actually, none of us knew what we were doing, we were all figuring it out. That was actually really nice.’
It is clear that Potter has a passion for her litigation roots and applying them to solve problems. ‘Part of my heart absolutely sparks with joy whenever we have anybody who tries it on from a litigious perspective, where they send a letter before action alleging spurious things. It’s fun, engaging with the business on something that you know isn’t going to have severe consequences.’
Potter’s hopes for how the industry will evolve are centred on it becoming ‘a lot more human’, diversity and managing to embrace the generational differences of younger millennials and Gen-Zers.
She explains: ‘I hope as an industry we can focus on creating something that embraces genuine inclusion, focuses on social mobility and diversity, coming about through the developments that we’re seeing right now from apprenticeship programs and alternatives to traditional traineeships and education.’
In March, in honour of International Women’s Day, Potter hosted a charity poker tournament in aid of the Centenary Action Group, a cross-party charity that works to eradicate the barriers that prevent women from taking part in politics and part of CARE International. IHL was in attendance and can confirm that the Twinkle cocktails (champagne, vodka, elderflower) being served up on the night were particularly potent. The event also showed Potter in her element, using her natural charisma to convince guests to part with their hard-earned money for a good cause, in a refreshingly joyous way.
Potter is all about the power of the individual, for both in-house and private practice lawyers. ‘All lawyers need to recognise the influence that they have and leverage that power to drive whatever human-led change they see as necessary through their own experiences, whether that be horrible hours, awful partners or bad policies,’ she explains. ‘People aren’t engaging with that power because people individually feel weak. Individually people are incredibly powerful, but it takes having uncomfortable conversations with others and yourself.’
Potter is not bad at motivational speaking either. ‘A lot of people sit around waiting for something magically to swoop down and fix a thing, change a situation or something frustrating. That you are the only person who can change things is hard to learn, but it’s also incredibly empowering. The only way junior lawyers get better is by doing something. It’s uncomfortable, you don’t always get it right and you fail, but it’s the only thing worth doing.’
At a glance – Terra Potter
2012-2013 Regional legal counsel for Asia Pacific, GL Group, Kuala Lumpur
2014-16 Legal counsel for DNV GL Group Asia Pacific
2016-2019 Legal counsel DNV GL Group Europe & Africa, London
2019-2020 Regional general counsel Industrial EMEA/Asia Pacific, Hexcel Corporation
2020-2021 Regional GC – EMEA/Asia Pacific and GC – Industrial, Hexcel Corporation
2021-present GC – EMEA/Asia Pacific and Industrial, Hexcel Corporation
Hexcel Corporation – key facts
Size of team Four
External legal spend Not disclosed
Preferred advisers DLA Piper (relationship partner is Charles Severs) and K&L Gates (relationship partner is Tom Smith)