Richard Heller is the first and only general counsel in the history of Legal Sea Foods, the New England institution that has come to set the standard for ocean-fare restaurants across the country. Since joining the company in 2003, Heller, who’s also a senior vice president at Legal’s, has overseen the brand’s major expansion and an industry revolution in corporate compliance.
Q. Legal Sea Foods isn’t exactly a faceless defense contractor or plastics company. Is there a special challenge to working for such a visible community fixture?
A. There is an added responsibility to the job. Legal’s didn’t have in-house counsel when my firm first represented them. They asked me, but I initially resisted because of my existing clients. When I agreed to take the job, I soon realized that my role was not merely as in-house counsel, but as protector of the brand. A lot of lawyers could do the nuts and bolts, but as I tell my trainees, everywhere you go, you represent the Berkowitz family and their commitment to quality. For an owner [such as CEO Roger Berkowitz] to have such a public persona is great, but there’s risk there as well.
Q. How so?
A. Well, I’ve known Roger since the fourth grade. He’s very creative and imaginative, and he has a very dry sense of humor, which can catch a lot of people by surprise. He wants to be engaged at every level of the business, and people take advantage of that — not in a good or bad way; it’s just that people know they can go to him directly. It doesn’t undermine the management structure, but as the organization has grown, it’s become a challenge to merge that openness with a more managed game.
Q. Did the recent E.coli outbreak at Chipotle affect your organization in any way?
A. It was one of those “See — this can happen!” moments that reinforced the way the industry has changed. There’s a flashlight mentality now that wasn’t there even a short while ago. And with 4,000 employees and 33 restaurants, to ensure compliance at all levels is an immense challenge. Compliance and quality have not only become everyday concerns, the industry is now squarely focused on them.
Q. Can you comment on the pending litigation filed by employees of Legal Sea Foods over shared tips?
A. No, I can’t comment on that. What I can say is that there are a lot of current employees who were very upset to see that action filed. They feel very loyal to the company. It’s frivolous, in my opinion.
Q. You were a founding partner of Heller, Levin, Seksay & Ouellette in Boston. Has there been a downside to leaving private practice?
A. My main goal as an attorney is to keep learning, and the best way to do that is from other lawyers. I do miss the bar collegiality and regular interactions with colleagues. I do have an associate general counsel, and I have to stay on top of things handling the business, real estate, oversight and corporate governance matters. But I miss the everyday learning. I can always seek out what I need to know, but it was easier to just walk down the hall.
Q. Did you have to undergo any seafood-specific training as a requirement for the job?
A. No, but back in the early days, I was with Roger one time and there was a huge shipment of shrimp that had come in. He said, “Come on, let’s go,” and brought me up with him to get to peeling. To Roger, it was just the family business, but I’d had enough after about half an hour. I said, “Roger, I really don’t like this.” That was the extent of my direct involvement with the merchandise.
Q. What’s on the horizon for you and Legal Sea Foods?
A. We’re seeing a lot of movement in our expansion into transportation venues, such as airports. This is a fast-growing area and affords me a great learning opportunity with respect to lease negotiations and the like. Compliance continues to be the main challenge as its scope broadens within the industry, which will require constant education on my part, which is still the most important part about my job. In private practice, I learned things for specific clients and projects; as in-house cou