Roya Behnia, ’91: Legal Mind, Corporate Leader

Appeared in Record issue: 
Fall 2012

In June, Roya Behnia, ’91, was named senior vice president, general counsel, and corporate secretary at Pall Corporation, the nearly $3 billion provider of filtration, separation, and purification solutions. For Behnia, her new position caps off a steady progression toward the kind of responsibilities she has wanted and prepared herself for.

“I aspire to be part of a ‘new breed’ of corporate general counsels, even though there have surely been many GCs before us with the same qualities,” she says. “We’re working hard to provide legal services in a way that is fully responsive to, and integrated with, the strategic business needs of the companies we serve. We and our teams are integrated within the management and leadership teams, and we work hard to be seen as business partners by everyone within the organization.”

It was in her first job after law school, as an associate and then a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, that Behnia began to perceive the breadth of her interests, finding that her clients’ business challenges and opportunities were often as intriguing to her as their legal issues.

Deciding to enter into a more direct connection with the business world, she took a position as director of litigation at a major corporation, and from there she went to multibillion dollar SPX Corporation, where she was group general counsel of the Specialty Engineered Products Group. Her work at SPX was inspiring to her, she says: “The GC empowered the legal team to be involved in the business, and the company’s leaders sincerely valued the legal department. It was so energizing for me to be in that kind of positive, constructive environment.” Next she joined Rewards Network, Inc., a publicly held marketing and financial services company, as its general counsel, further expanding her business role. As part of the company’s five-person management committee, she was centrally involved in developing and implementing business strategy, including the design and launch of new products and technology, business alliances, and operational improvements.

Her interest in the business side of things has led her to write a number of papers and blog posts addressing such topics as continuous improvement of business and legal processes and the alignment of the legal function with a company’s strategic needs. In a three-part “agile manifesto,” she calls for a shift toward greater collaboration, flexibility, and agility in delivering legal services and for a strong bias toward simplicity.

Like her work itself, her writings display the essence of what she gained from her time at the Law School. “I learned how to think critically,” she says. “Geof Stone, Richard Posner, David Currie, and a host of others helped to shape my ability to analyze and plot a course of action. In my career I’ve worked at a diverse range of companies, where I have regularly encountered problems I’d never seen before. My Law School training helped me meet those kinds of challenges.” Her ties to the Law School remain strong. She co-taught a seminar on trial strategy for five years, served on the Visiting Committee, and was co-chair of her class’s 20th reunion. “Our class was very close,” she says, “and a lot of us still see many of our classmates on a pretty regular basis. We raised a substantial amount of money for student scholarships as our reunion gift, as a way of giving back and making it possible for others to have the same kind of intellectual and interpersonal experiences that have made such a difference for us.”

She also maintains a connection with the country where she was born, Iran, having returned several times for visits and speaking proudly of her heritage. “Whatever I can do to counter stereotypes about people from the Middle East, whatever I can do to positively affect perceptions of that part of the world—I think that benefits all of us,” she says.

Behnia took her time to consider many opportunities before taking her current position at Pall, which, because of its long history of contributing to sustainability, refers to itself as “the original clean technology company.” She’s very pleased about the choice she made. “I couldn’t be happier,” she says. “I’m part of a great team tending to a strong and fascinating business—and we’re doing something good for the world, too.”