After practicing at law firms for more than a decade, Nancy M. Cremins had what she calls “an existential career crisis.” Then a partner at Gesmer Updegrove, Cremins found herself wondering what she wanted to do over the course of the next 10 years.
The answer came to her when one of her clients, Globalization Partners CEO Nicole Sahin, told her about a new six-week sabbatical program she wanted to create at the company. While Cremins joked, “Where do I sign,” before she knew it, the prospect of going in-house at the professional employer organization had become a reality.
“Within a month I had signed an employment agreement,” says Cremins, who joined the company — which helps primarily U.S. companies expand internationally — in May 2016 as its chief administrative officer and general counsel.
As one of the company’s first 10 employees, Cremins was tasked with building the legal department and defining its mission. Today, Globalization Partners numbers more than 65 — with three attorneys in the legal department — and has a reach that extends into 150 countries.
Even as she has helped guide the company’s rapid growth, Cremins has stayed heavily involved in the Women’s Bar Association, where she’s a board member and past president, and several initiatives she helped start to assist women entrepreneurs both in Boston and abroad.
She recently sat down with New England In-House’s Matthew Cove to talk about the challenges of bringing her company’s services to 150 countries and how an in-house role can be rewarding for an “efficient” lawyer.
Q. What was the biggest adjustment in moving in-house from a law firm?
A. I think it’s a mental shift. First of all, I don’t bill hours anymore, so that’s a big change. The other thing is, when you’re outside counsel, the expectation is what you turn in to clients should be pretty much perfect, whereas here I have business directives, and the business directives are to get to the good enough answer as quickly as possible. It takes 80 percent of the time to get that last 20 percent.
Q. Globalization Partners has an “Employer of Record” program that’s central to the business. What does the program entail?
A. It really goes back to what we are as an organization. In the U.S., the PEO [Professional Employer Organization] model is different. It’s a co-employment model. Internationally, there really isn’t a recognition of a co-employment model, and our clients don’t have the time, energy or resources to set up in the countries where they might like to do business. So we are the sole employer, in the countries where we provide our clients’ services. That is, we act as the employer of record. The employees do all their work on our clients’ behalf, but we take care of all the technical employment details.
Q. What are the biggest challenges of offering your services in so many countries?
A. One of the biggest challenges is making sure that we are fully compliant with all the employment laws where we do business, because they change all the time. So, in addition to our own work and expertise, we have local counsel everywhere that we are in pretty regular contact with.
Data privacy and data security is a huge issue that every multinational that has business in Europe has to address. The [General Data Protection Regulation] comes into effect May 25 of this year. It has some pretty high standards for compliance, and the failure to comply is very expensive. Because we collect all this HR data, we have to ensure we have as tight a data security plan as we can. It’s not sexy, but it’s super important.
Q. When you look for local counsel internationally, how do you select firms to work with?
A. A lot of it is responsiveness. Another big piece of it for us is their ability to grasp our business model. Because the industry is pretty young, it often requires some creative problem-solving. We are looking to comply with the laws, but the laws aren’t exactly designed for what we do, so we often have to figure out ways to be compliant that require some creative thinking.
Q. When you hire local firms, do concerns ever arise about their culture or makeup not being as progressive as it might be domestically — for example, if you’re doing business in the Middle East?
A. We do have business dealings in the Middle East. I would say it’s not an impossible task for a women-led company to have business relationships there. I’m always looking to have access to at least one woman on an outside counsel team, just because that’s important to me. But many of the primary people are men. That’s just a factor of lawyers and law firms, both domestically and abroad. But we haven’t found any particular partner to be so dismissive or so non-progressive that it was a gating factor for us.
Usually, it’s more about whether they’re responsive. And it’s a very U.S.-centric approach, but we need someone who can speak English well. Language is hugely important. If we can’t have a conversation where we actually understand each other, that’s going to be a gating factor.
Q. Is an in-house role more accommodating for a working mother than being at a law firm?
A. What I have liked about working in a place like this, specifically in this place, is that much of the executive leadership team [is made up of] working mothers who don’t come with preconceived notions about commitment.
Frankly, most of the working mothers I know are ruthlessly committed to and ruthlessly efficient at their jobs and to their families. So they are really good at prioritizing. But we also make it pretty clear to the rest of the staff that you don’t have to work all the business hours. People are entrusted to get the job done whenever they need to.
Having the full faith and trust of my CEO to get my job done but to be able to organize my life is a huge benefit, which I think can be missing from law firm structures that value face time over quality time. And whenever you have billable hours as the model for revenue, it can be a challenge for people who might actually just be more efficient at their jobs.
Q. Outside of your day job, you co-founded She Starts, designed to support women entrepreneurs. How did that originate?
A. The organization launched in March 2014. At Gesmer, we worked with emerging companies, and getting out into the entrepreneurial community I met tons of women who conveyed similar themes. They felt isolated; they didn’t feel particularly welcome at some of these more generalized startup events. So having had experience through the Women’s Bar Association of being supported and having an organization that existed to help women survive and thrive in the legal profession, I thought that that might be something that would be valuable to the women’s entrepreneurial community.
We hold programs and events and work to provide a place where people can turn if they need a warm referral or need connections or access to talent, potentially access to angel investors or VCs.
Q. You were also a founding member and board member of Prosperity Catalyst. What’s the mission of that organization?
A. It trains women to become entrepreneurs in areas that have had natural disasters or periods of war. We have projects in both Haiti and Iraq at the moment, and the thesis is that when women have access to revenue, they reinvest that revenue in their communities and make their communities more stable and more peaceful. So that’s an organization that is near and dear to my heart. As my kids get older and time has to be prioritized, I just had to take a break from serving on the board.