By Dan Lear • May 06, 2015
At the legal technology and content behemoth, Thomson Reuters, Bernadette Bulacan’s current title is “Director of Market Development.” However, that title doesn’t due justice to this amazing woman who (1) was on the founding team for an innovative legal-focused startup, (2) saw the .com boom and bust first-hand, ultimately being laid off by her law firm, (3) bounced back only to rise through the associate ranks to partner at a large-for-Seattle law firm, and (4) got married, beat cancer, and started a family all along the way.
I also feel very fortunate to call Bernadette a friend and consider her both a pleasure to be around and immensely, yet quietly, inspiring.
Dan Lear (DL): Are you originally from the Seattle area?
Bernadette Bulacan (BB): No. I grew up in San Diego. I’m a nice little beach girl who got an acceptance to Yale University. And I only tried to get into Yale because a soccer player at our high school was being recruited there. I thought "All things being equal, I think he and I have the same grades and background. But I can't kick a soccer ball."
I threw my hat in at Yale. I got in and I spent four years at Yale. After Yale, I knew I was going to go to law school. I had taken the LSAT, but I had no desire to get there fast.
I took a year off then I applied to law schools on the West Coast and eventually found my way to the University of Washington.
The second year, I was a summer associate at a law firm called Venture Law Group or VLG. VLG was based in Silicon Valley and its primary purpose was to help startup and technology companies with early-round financings and to prepare them for either an IPO or some other significant transaction – usually an acquisition.
When I interviewed, they had a very established office in Silicon Valley. But they also opened an office in the Pacific Northwest to take advantage of all the technology, spinoffs, and biotech here.
I split my summer between the Valley and the Seattle offices and decided that I wanted to plant my roots in Seattle. I worked with VLG in Seattle for a few years. It was an exciting fast-paced time but it came to a screeching halt after 9/11 and the bursting of the .com bubble.
Shortly thereafter, I landed with a company called Serengeti a tech darling of yesteryear focused on legal technology. It was a nice intersection of my legal background and my interest in technology.
Not long after I joined Serengeti the venture capitalists that were funding came in and shut the company down. I thought "Oh, my gosh. Could I have any worse luck?"
But the morning after the VC’s closed the business, four of the then-executives at Serengeti called another four of us together to meet. They said "We think we can go at this on our own. Would you be willing to join us? We'll figure out a way to get the assets we need to run the business, including the technology. We'll get a couple of computers. We'll figure it out. Would you be willing to try?"
I thought "Why not? We can do this." So the Serengeti that you see now (ed. later acquired by and now a division of Thomson Reuters) is literally a phoenix from the ashes. We were left to die unfunded by our venture capitalists, but the “new” founding team, of which I was a part, really believed that this technology was innovative and was going to change the legal landscape. And it has.
I stayed at Serengeti for a little bit longer working in various roles including as Assistant General Counsel, but I wanted to build my skills as a lawyer.
So, I went back and started to work again for a little firm that only did work with startup companies. That firm eventually merged into a local firm called Graham & Dunn. And I ultimately became a partner at Graham & Dunn. We had a specialized corporate group that focused on startups and emerging companies.
I was on my merry way. It was the trajectory that many people imagined when they start law school. But then, along the side, life happens. I got married and I don't know if I’ve told you know this, but I was diagnosed with cancer.
BB: I guess I haven’t told you this story, but it turns out that my decision to leave Serengeti to practice law was extremely timely. But let me back up: the week that I knew that Serengeti was getting shut down, I went to the doctor because I had this weird rash. I was thinking, "I'm going to go get my teeth cleaned and get my eyes checked and generally max out my benefits because they’ll be gone soon."
I went to the doctor for the rash and he told me: "You might have lupus." I said: "I can't have lupus because, soon, I won’t have health insurance."
The tests came back that I didn't have lupus but looking back now what I think those were the early indications of Stage 1 Hodgkin's lymphoma. However, they didn’t catch it then and I didn’t think about it again.
Fast forward a year and I left Serengeti for Graham and Dunn in 2003. A year and a half after that (almost two and a half years from the lupus episode) I was getting ready to get married . . . and I was itchy. I was scratching myself so hard that I was leaving gashes.
My fiancé at the time, now husband, said, "Why don't you go to a dermatologist?" Long story short, I learned from that dermatologist, that I wasn't having a reaction to detergent or food. I had Stage 3 Hodgkin's lymphoma. This was three months before our wedding!
But thankfully, again, long story short, I’m married, I'm cured, and I'm healthy. In addition, I've had two healthy kids. I’ve been “clean” for a number of years.
DL: Wow. What a story. I had no idea.
BB: I think things happen for a reason. I'm so glad that I was at a financially stable, health benefit-offering firm when I got sick. I feel very lucky.
I moved through the cancer episode and remained at Graham & Dunn. I had a really vibrant practice, great partners, and great attorneys. I had always stayed in touch with Serengeti, and finally one of the executives asked if I’d be interested in coming back. Deep down, I was happy they called.
In 2011, I came back to Serengeti, but on the business side. And then, shortly thereafter, we were acquired by Thomson Reuters (TR). After the acquisition, I thought about leaving but I’ve been fortunate to have some champions at TR that encouraged me to stay. And, so I have.
My official title at Thomson Reuters is Director of Market Development. But I really think of myself as a student of the legal industry.
Because of my past, working as in-house counsel for Serengeti and also being a partner at a law firm allows me to talk to different groups with a great deal of credibility. I share insights and best practices on a micro-level, one-on-one with a GC or with a legal department and at a macro level, speaking at different conferences and with different groups of corporate counsel.
DL: You have two kids?
BB: Two kids, boys.
DL: How old?
BB: They are three years apart. There’s a four-year-old and a soon to be seven-year-old. They're a handful. I have a lot of divots in my walls at home. But I welcome it.
DL: Talk about your husband. He's a partner at K&L Gates?
BB: My husband is a tax partner at K&L Gates. He went to NYU where he got a JD and LLM. As a first-year law student, he was a summer associate at Preston Gates & Ellis (ed. the predecessor firm to K&L Gates). Then he was a second-year summer at Preston Gates & Ellis he's been there ever since. He’s a lifer.
It's absolutely the right place for him. It's just so odd to me because you could take all of my business cards from all the jobs I’ve had and you could decorate walls of our house with them. But Rob has been at the same place the whole time. I think that's incredible.
He's also wonderfully adept at taking care of our children when I am gone. And I am on the road a fair amount. One might think that I have a stay-at-home father. He equally parents our children and he goes to work. There’s a story about that.
DL: Fire away.
BB: Last year I spoke to a large group of General Counsel at a large Association Corporate Council (ACC) event in Los Angeles: part of my job is to go around the country, consulting general counsels in legal departments.
I was having cocktails with a group and telling them about my job. One of the men in the group said: "You're on the road quite a bit. It must be so nice to have a stay-at-home father with your kids." I thought to myself: "Is he talking to me? Because I'm going to love going home and telling my husband that someone called him a stay-at-home dad."
DL: That’s great.
Part of the experience in this “Dispatches from the Y Chromosome” project for me, even though I have worked around and for women, was to get outside of myself as a male and try to understand “the other side” of the gender gap. But I am also Caucasian. I frequently ask interviewees to reflect on whether they have had experiences through their career in which they've felt that they were treated differently because they were female. As you’re a woman of color, I’d love to have you reflect on that question but also bring in any thoughts on how your race may or may not have affected those situations or other situations.
BB: I'll speak to being a woman of color, especially in this profession. I go to conferences all over the U.S. And I look into the audience and I mostly see Caucasian males.
I was a founding member of FLOW, Filipino Lawyers of Washington. Which is a terrific organization (and a terrific name for an organization). I’m really energized by these pockets of minority attorneys getting together and supporting each other.
I've been working with an attorney, a general counsel, in Chicago who is creating a National Filipino Lawyers Association. Initially I wondered, how many of us can there be? But, it turns out, there are so many that we can have a national organization.
My favorite story, though, happened when I was a second or third-year associate and was asked to attend a board meeting. One of the board members pulls his chair over and says to me: "So, are you the secretary? Are you going to take notes?" And I said: "I am not. I am your counsel. Nice to meet you."
I have another example of how words and comments, with no malicious intent, can undermine you. I worked with an attorney who used to say, as a point of pride, to clients: "Bernadette is both the brain and the beauty on this team." I pulled him aside and made him aware that he wouldn’t say this about my male colleagues. For instance, he wouldn’t say to or about another young male associate on our deal team: "He’s the brawn and the brains in this deal, too, right?"
DL: What strikes me about that comment is, that, on the one hand, it's an improvement from the days of Mad Men, when they used to say: "Joan's the beauty." Full stop. Or, worse, "Joan's the beauty, but not the brains." It seems a step in the right direction.
On the other hand, it needlessly draws attention to your looks, and implicitly, that you’re female – and that there might be some other reason that you’re sitting at the table besides the simple fact that you’re competent enough to be there. Just as you stated, was that attorney going to look down the table and say something similar about male associate? Absolutely not. It wouldn't come up.
BB: I share this story a bit grudgingly, because, at the end of the day, the particular attorney who made these comments was a huge champion for me and for my career. He saw potential in me, recognized me, and told me that if I did well, he was going to promote me. And he absolutely did.
But female associates and partners battle these kinds of “less thoughtful” comments all the time. These kinds of comments don't necessarily come from a bad, malicious place….
DL: Right, the speaker is not, necessarily, trying to tamp you down.
BB: . . . but they just don't recognize the bias in that particular comment.
DL: Tell me about how you’ve advanced in your career. How have you asserted yourself?
BB: I'm naturally curious and I ask questions about why and when.
I’ve never been shy about raising my hand. I come from a long line of strong Filipino women. I get my entrepreneurial spirit from a grandmother who sold rice cakes and took the little things from her family farm and sold them in bigger markets in the Philippines. Later my mom took equity from a very small house that we owned in an “up and coming” neighborhood of recent refugees in San Diego and then bought additional houses improving their value with our sweat equity.
We've always had a really strong work ethic, we've always been innovative in finding opportunities, and we've always asked. There is no shame in asking and raising your hand.
That, really, has followed me through my formal education and in my professional life, both at the law firms, plural, and now, at TR.
If there are stretch projects, I'm going to ask to be part of them. And all I ask in those situations is, that, if I'm ready for the task, I be allowed to contribute. If I'm not ready for the task, then I want them to let me know why and help me understand how I can obtain the necessary experience and build that skill. So that, for the next project, I'm the first person you think about.
I remember one of my partners was asking me about “prior work” experience. I thought for a minute and said: "I had to go pick up rent from my mom's houses." I guess it was my Filipino version of the paper route.
Those things create ownership and accountability. That has always been part of our DNA.
DL: That’s really powerful. Thanks for sharing.
DL: What are you doing now?
BB: Lately, I've been working with some incredible female General Counsels of large, some of them Fortune 500, companies talking about the data that they're extracting to demonstrate the value that their legal departments deliver. It’s great to talk with them about how they can demonstrate the value that they and their departments provide.
Lawyers used to rely upon saying: "We did this and we did that. That’s how we demonstrate that we’ve created value for you." But we’re learning that it's even more powerful to say: "We saved the company X amount of dollars, a certain percent of our budget. And now that money can then be redistributed to research and development, or put into profit centers, rather than into our cost center."
That's a great story to tell. Some wonderful women GCs have mentored me through this process and shared with me how they've been telling their stories using numbers, pictures, and stories of data. It's been really tremendous.
DL: Final thoughts for readers of Ms. JD?
BB: I've had the good fortune, and I think of it as good fortune, to do a lot of things. If you had talked to me when I first started law school I would have said I wanted to become a big corporate attorney and rule the world. Too much TV probably drove that trajectory.
BB: It's a foil against my husband's career. Legal careers and non-legal careers go through several transformations. Embrace that. I'm a change-junkie and I think that's okay. I've had this really rich career, I've worked with really awesome teams, I've had different types of achievements, and I have taken advantage of different skill sets that I've had. And I'm better for that. Don’t be scared of change. The places where you are now will not be, if you don't want them to be, the place where you are two steps from now. You do not have to stay on one trajectory. Listen to your gut and embrace change if it comes to you. Transformation is an excellent thing.