Currently: Executive vice president and general counsel, The Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America Inc.
Previously: Partner, Debevoise & Plimpton LLP
Law school: New York University School of Law
Eric Dinallo, general counsel for Guardian Life Insurance Co. of America Inc., didn't initially think he would end up in the insurance industry but says he loves where it's taken his career.
Dinallo's previous experiences include senior-level leadership positions as superintendent of insurance for New York state, global head of regulatory affairs at Morgan Stanley and general counsel at Willis Group Holdings PLC. Before joining Guardian Life, Dinallo co-led the insurance group at Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, where he represented financial services firms on regulatory, compliance, litigation and transactional issues. He also ran for New York state attorney general and for 10 years has served on the board of the American Institute for Stuttering, becoming its chairman in November. Working in the insurance industry through the financial crisis, Dinallo said he realized how crucial insurance is to people’s daily lives. "We take for granted that insurance exists," he told Law360 in a recent interview. "It hasn't always been there, and really, nobody does much of anything in this world without insurance in place. ... Doctors don't operate, deals don't get closed, construction doesn't happen — people don't lead safe and secure lives without insurance." After working as Guardian Life's top lawyer for a year, Dinallo says he appreciates being at a mission-driven life insurance company that is owned by its policyholders rather than by shareholders. Here, Dinallo shares how his in-house experiences differ from his law firm position, and what he didn't know about the corporate world before his first in-house job. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
How does your experience leading the legal team at Guardian Life differ from co-leading the insurance group at Debevoise & Plimpton?
To me, the major difference has been that we get to be much more proactive and start projects and/or confront issues and see them from beginning to end — which is very satisfying — as opposed to being at a law firm, which is also obviously very satisfying, but very different. At a firm, you're usually brought in for the company's most difficult, high-impact issues. Even then, you're brought in in the seventh inning with the bases loaded. "Just get me out of this jam" was my practice to some extent. It was exciting and really interesting and varied, but it was often, to me at least, not as satisfying because I didn't always get to see the complete lifespan of the project I was working on. That was my role. But I like the idea that here we can really react to things or begin projects and see them all the way through, and thereby learn a lot.
What didn't you know about the corporate world before you took your first in-house job?
First of all, you never really understand how varied the issues are until you're in-house. When you're outside counsel, by definition you're seeing a very narrow and specialized swath of work, generally. When you're in-house, you're seeing in law and compliance and government affairs the full panoply of issues that a Fortune 250 company deals with. I have honestly been surprised at how varied and interesting the issues are. The other thing that my education has been about is that vocabulary really matters. When I first came here, I said to my colleagues, "Please make sure that I know the right words for things. If I'm faking it, call me on it." I think the businesspeople and my colleagues would be unimpressed if you're not taking the time to learn the vocabulary that shows that you're working with them fully. It's funny because that's not the way I would conduct myself. I would think, all that's important is that I understand the concepts and directionally I get it. But actually, vocabulary really matters. It's kind of a form of respect. I work on that, even though I'm sure I get it wrong often enough.
Do you mean vocabulary specific to the insurance world or in general?
I mean in the insurance world. Like group insurance is important. The companies are called sponsors and individuals are called lives. If you keep on saying "employees," it's like, haven't you been paying attention at the meetings? After a while, you should adopt it — up to a point, by the way. If the vocabulary is such that it's become self-referential and no one but the regulator could really understand, that's something to work on.
What drew you to Guardian Life?
Probably my first and biggest draw honestly was [President and CEO] Deanna Mulligan, who I had been exposed to when I was at Debevoise over the course of years. As I got to know the company more and did more and more work, and I sort of saw this when I was the regulator, it was the values of the company. You go through the interview process, you're outside counsel and you just can't believe until you're here how appropriately inculcated and essential our company's values and mission are.
We recite them all the time — we don't do a catechism at the beginning of each day — but we are in meetings and we refer to them. "OK, if we're going to be values-driven, how would we do the right thing here?" or, "Is this really reflective of people mattering?" or, "Are we really at the highest end of holding ourselves to important quality standards?" They come out all the time and they're really part of the culture. Being at a mutual compared to being at a public company is, to me, really exciting because it does permit you to think a little more long-term, to think about doing the right thing as opposed to hitting quarterly numbers. It permits us to be truly mission-driven because we don't have shareholders.
What is one responsibility or issue that you think about or have to put at least some mental energy into each day?
Increasingly, I think people would agree that financial services and the regulated aspects of the industry are moving faster and faster than ever. Some of it is, frankly, attached to politics, by which I mean that some insurance commissioners are elected and many of them are appointed by elected officials. There is real demand by consumers and policyholders that there be responsiveness by those officials. I read five newspapers a day to try to stay on top of current events and where I think our industry might be going. By nature, life insurance is a very long-dated industry. We do commitments that are 40 and 50 years long. But actually, we are still living a lot of daily dynamics and energy change. I think that this management team, led by Deanna, has been fantastic at responding to that and modernizing us. But it's somewhat new to a 160-year-old company that was primarily a mutual life insurance company for that time. I think there's an expectation that I'm trying hard to look around the corners and figure out what the next developments and trends are for what I'm responsible for. So I wake up every day with that in mind.
How has the insurance industry changed over the past several years, and what is the biggest challenge it faces right now?
I think the hard-to-dispute answer to that is technology and innovation. Whether it's on the property and casualty side, or now increasing on life and disability, we as an industry are responding to consumers and policyholders whose experience is impacted by Amazon and Google and a world that has a certain immediacy to it that life insurance in particular has historically not been about. Part of that is because underwriting can take a long time. That's appropriate because we're selling a liability; we're not selling a widget. We have to make good on promises 30, 40, 50 years from now, so you have to be careful that we're making promises that we can keep and retain our financial health and solvency. Having said that, though, we do need to innovate, and we do need to be faster and more customer-centric in our businesses. That's something that I think I hear everyone talking about. But one of the challenges that I wrestle with — and at some level I feel a special responsibility because of my former government role — is the laws and the regulations and the rules have not adapted to that change.
For a lot of insurance questions, there are yet no answers in the insurance laws. The regulators, appropriately, are struggling at giving guidance because they don't have the statistical experience — as we don't — to opine yet. There is somewhat of a Catch-22 that leaves lawyers and compliance and government affairs people in our position doing our best to give advice without clear rules.
Has Guardian Life implemented any novel ideas or introduced new products to address changes in the market?
Consistent with what I said before to show innovation, we do now have a direct-to-consumer channel that sells some products. For instance, dental and pet insurance. Obviously, there's the potential for other kinds of insurance, and we are learning and innovating in that area.
How can in-house lawyers at the highest level more effectively remove obstacles for the advancement of minority attorneys within the legal industry?
We can talk at a policy level about diversity, but senior lawyers in-house have to actually do the daily things that increase diversity. So it's really some important mechanical moves that you make. One of it is, if you have an opening, you say, "I want to see a diverse slate of candidates. I want to go and look at sources that are not self-referential because if I'm a white male, I may end up with similarly situated candidates. I want to make sure I go out and do the things I do, including stopping for a moment and thinking to myself, who do I know in the industry who is diverse who could help us in this role that would really be a qualified, impact player as a new hire?" And then also just be driven by the concept that it's good business. We're better at our jobs if we have a diverse group sitting around problem-solving. It's a more enjoyable atmosphere. It's morally the right thing to do. But it's also good for our policyholders to have more and more diverse representation. --Editing by Breda Lund and Philip Shea.