Attorney Karen A. Ripley did not care much for law school, but luckily, she loves practicing law. The fact that she serves as the chief legal officer for MillerCoors LLC might have something to do with it. Appointed to the position after the summer merger, Ripley oversees a legal department of 30 people for a company that produces 32 different beers.
She proudly admits she has yet to meet an attorney who would not want her job. “I’m a lawyer who gets to sell beer, how much cooler can you get?” Her responsibilities range from negotiating complex contracts with local distributors to complying with state and federal alcohol regulations. The Muskego native is preparing to move to the company’s new headquarters in Chicago, but took time to sit down in her Milwaukee office with Wisconsin Law Journal reporter Jack Zemlicka. They discussed the legal challenges associated with the merger, her favorite part of the job and whether Bob Uecker will ever be back in commercials.
Wisconsin Law Journal: You oversee the entire legal department at MillerCoors. How did you initially get involved with the brewery?
Karen A. Ripley: As outside counsel [for Quarles & Brady] I was doing some work assisting Miller with technology agreements. Right around that time, they had an opening for an attorney to come in. I think the variety of my background was a plus because one of the exciting things about working here is you never know when the phone rings, what’s going to be on the other end.
WLJ: What has been the biggest legal challenge in the merger of Miller and Coors?
Ripley: We both had been used to a single location for operation. Miller attorneys worked out of offices here in Milwaukee and the Coors attorneys worked out of the Golden Brewery in Colorado. We’re now a multi-location legal department. We are developing the infrastructure to support our ability to do that. Now the ability to communicate beyond email is critical.
WLJ: How has the transition gone in terms of merging inside counsel from the two breweries?
Ripley: It’s gone remarkably well. It was helpful that we all came from the same background where we understood alcohol beverage law and regulation. As we merged, we have seen a bit of an increase in the size of the legal department, reflecting the fact we have a headquarters here, one in Golden, Colo. and we will soon have one in Chicago.
WLJ: Certainly the economy has hit many industries hard. How has it affected the legal side of your company?
Ripley: Of course we’re putting together two groups of outside counsel that we’ve used previously, so we’re evaluating who is the service provider on certain topics and determining whether we need to go with multiple firms or can we look at consolidating law firms. We’re going through our first phase of that and determining who is doing what work for us and how in-house lawyers viewed the representation from firms.
WLJ: How complex are some of the legal issues you handle?
Ripley: On the marketing side, if we want to do a consumer sweepstakes, we have to check all 50 states because all require us to do things differently. In some states, as an alcohol beverage company, you are forbidden from doing a sweepstakes, and in others you can, but in other states there are crazy kinds of restrictions about what kind of prizing you can have and where you can give it away. So you have to know all of those things just to run a consumer sweepstakes.
WLJ: Given the highly regulated nature of the business, how much litigation do you do?
Ripley: We don’t do a lot of litigation, thank goodness. In terms of regulation, many states have value restrictions on the amount something can be for a giveaway in a bar setting. One of my favorite examples is from the early ’90s. California had a restriction that you could only give away items to consumers that were 25 cents or less. We argued there should be an increase to $1. We finally got increases last year. I chuckled because this is something I worked on 15 years ago and we’re finally doing it.
WLJ: What has been your favorite part of the job?
Ripley: The coolest part of my job over the years has been negotiating the sports sponsorships. I got to do some our original deals with the Dallas Cowboys and the Chicago Bulls, when Michael Jordan was there. At that time, my nephews thought I was the coolest aunt in the universe because I could get a few things for them as tokens of various deals we did.
WLJ: Is there anything you can do to bring Bob Uecker back to Miller Lite commercials?
Ripley: Bob has been gracious enough to come back for some employee events and so many people that aren’t as familiar with that campaign have gotten to know him. So I think probably at this point he’s more of an ambassador than anything else, but I would certainly second it.
WLJ: Tastes great or less filling?
Ripley: Tastes great. No question about it.
WLJ: You seem like a person who loves her job, but had you not gotten into the legal profession, what career path might you have chosen?
Ripley: Urban and regional planning and then going into working for a municipality somewhere. I applied to one law school, the University of Wisconsin because I had in-state tuition and had been going to school there, so I knew how things worked. I took the LSAT on one weekend and the graduate record exam the following weekend, so I was going to grad school if I didn’t get into law school.