The Law School Magazine  ·  Winter 2014 : Features

Navigating Cultural Differences: Craig Bryson ’00 manages attorneys from afar, abroad at Abbott Laboratories

By - Winter 2014
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It’s not as simple as walking down the hall and knocking on a door for Craig Bryson ’00 to convene with his legal team.

As area counsel for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at Abbott Laboratories, Bryson oversees 15 lawyers responsible for helping the company steer through the legal nuances of more than 80 countries. Abbott specializes in medical diagnostics and devices, science-based nutrition products, and pharmaceuticals that, as the company’s website states, “have enduring impact on the lives of millions of people across regions and cultures.”

Bryson has learned to deftly maneuver across multiple regions and cultures for the company. Based in Basel, Switzerland in an office with 200 employees representing 43 nationalities, he has tackled the intricacies of breaking down language barriers and managing lawyers and cases from afar.

 His approach:

  • Try not to use catchphrases, slang, and idioms, particularly in emails. American sports analogies and business argot like “quarterbacking” and “grow your business,” for instance, don’t always translate well to a non-native English speaker.
  • When possible, get in front of people for a discussion. If travel is not an option, this means using technology as much as possible. At Abbott, video-conferencing and “telepresence” – a conferencing technology Bryson equates to the bridge on Star Trek - facilitate meaningful discussions by allowing participants to feel like they’re in the same room.
  • Think like a generalist about foreign legal systems, latching on to common themes across countries, such as the similarities between common law systems in the U.S. and the U.K. versus civil law systems based on the Napoleonic Code.

Bryson and his team are on the legal frontlines for Abbott regarding issues that come up with all businesses in his region, including contract matters, litigation, compliance, and employment and labor disputes.

The international component of working for Abbott, which operates in more than 150 countries, was the draw for Bryson to join the company as counsel nearly seven years ago.

In fact, he’s been gearing up for a career in an international field since he was an undergraduate student at Miami University, studying French and international studies. He also earned a Certificate in International Trade and Development and participated in The University of Oxford – The Ohio State University Summer Law Program while in law school.

After graduation he worked primarily on mergers and acquisitions for law firms in upstate New York and Cincinnati. “I was

getting really good legal experience, but it was mostly U.S.-focused,” he said.

It wasn’t a tough decision for Bryson, though, to join Abbott when he was approached by an executive search consultant. He saw an opportunity to gain international experience that he simply could not pass up.

Working for a worthwhile cause was another lure.

“Working for a health care company, where its objective is to maintain quality of life, and in some cases, save lives, is compelling,” he said. “It makes me feel like everything I do is part of a bigger goal, which is the health of patients.”

After joining Abbott in 2007, he was promoted to senior counsel within 12 months, and then moved on to various roles, including relocating to Switzerland in 2010 to support licensing, acquisitions, and manufacturing for Abbott’s new Established Pharmaceuticals Division. Initially, he agreed to a two- to three-year commitment, but he decided to remain in Switzerland when he was appointed to his current role in January.

“When Abbott initially floated the idea of us living abroad, my wife and I were very excited,” he said. “We’d always wanted to live overseas , but we’d gotten to the point in our life where we had two children and were settled outside of Chicago. We just didn’t think it was ever going to happen.”

And when it did happen, it happened fast. Bryson accepted an expat position at the end of June 2010 and moved to Basel with his family in August, just in time for his two children to start at the local international school.

While there was never a “baptism by fire,” per se, Bryson was quick to recall some of the difficulties of navigating foreign legal systems.

“In many parts of the world, local context is often as important as the laws themselves,” he recalled. “This is why multinational companies like Abbott hire lawyers in its key markets. It’s not enough to be able to read the law, you must apply it to real-world scenarios on the ground, keeping in mind at all times the fundamental need to ensure your business is operated in a legally compliant fashion.”

Several early experiences dealing with complicated legal environments, including Russia, India, and China, conditioned Bryson to manage a team of lawyers in his current position as area counsel, a designation that requires him to flex his managerial and leadership skills.

“I’m still a lawyer, of course, but what I do now is mostly oversee and help my lawyers and their support staff,” Bryson said. “I help them analyze legal problems, digest relevant information and then formulate recommendations for our clients. Another primary responsibility I have is to ensure the successful development of my team, which is a responsibility I take very seriously as a manager.”

Three years after the move to Switzerland, Bryson says he’s comfortable with the lawyering-side of living abroad. Yet it’s the daily life that was, and in some cases still is, the bigger challenge.

“For me, I still feel very much like a foreigner in the country, primarily because I never learned to speak German. I can come up with many excuses for it — I was too busy, English is the language in the office, most Swiss people speak English impeccably, etc. — but the bottom line is I didn’t put enough effort into it, and now I’m paying the price a little. Without being able to speak the local language, it will always be difficult for me feel at home here. Even normally routine things like going to the dentist or picking up your dry cleaning can be a challenge,” he said, adding that he sometimes relies on his children to translate for him.

One of the benefits of living in Switzerland, though, Bryson said, is the proximity to other countries. His family relishes their time living abroad and has traveled to about 10 countries so far. Just this year they traveled to Paris, Lisbon, and Athens, went skiing in the Alps, spent Easter in Ireland, and enjoyed a long weekend in Montreux.

The pace of European life, he said, is another perk.

Grocery stores are typically open only until 7 p.m. on weekdays, and most businesses are closed on Sundays; this, Bryson said, he appreciates for the sake of his family.

“The idea behind the restrictive shop hours is that Sunday and evenings are time you spend with family doing recreational things,” he said. “Looking back to our lives in the States, we seemed to spend most weekends shopping, running other errands, or shuffling the kids to sports and the like. Whereas now we tend to hike and travel — or even just hang out at home — as a family. When we move back, I think we have to be a little more disciplined to make sure we don’t lose that because it’s made us closer to each other.”

They will have an opportunity to try it soon, as Bryson recently accepted a position in Santa Ana, Calif. as head lawyer in Abbott’s Medical Optics Division. He already feels content in a lot of ways. He was the first in his family to graduate from college, and looks forward to watching his children grow and whatever opportunity lies ahead.

“If I don’t advance any further in my career, I’d be perfectly happy,” he said. “I’ve gone further than I thought I would go — physically and metaphorically.”