Sonoco Visiting Fellow reflects on his lifelong international law journey
Sonoco Visiting Fellow Executive in Residence Phillip Chritton recently shared practical guidance from the front lines of international law and business based on his career as a UPS attorney with Moore School students. With UPS, Chritton was responsible for the company’s international legal matters, as well as legal support for health care logistics, mergers and acquisitions and data privacy.
His dream of seeing the world led him to pursue international law and corporate counsel roles in New York, Beijing, Hong Kong, Singapore and Atlanta over three decades.
He admits he didn’t have a straight trajectory to international law. In fall 1983 as a senior at Stanford University, Chritton said he envisioned enrolling in law school after graduation. Yet, he said he felt like his heart wasn’t in it.
When he stumbled upon a poster that read “Teach English in Beijing,” he signed up. Although unfamiliar with the Chinese language or culture, Chritton thought it sounded like an adventure to live and work “in a far corner of the world.”
“I really had no specific goals for what I hoped to get out of going to China. I just knew that I wanted to experience life from a new perspective, and I sensed this was a special opportunity,” he said.
This would be just the start of his global journey. After spending two years working and traveling in China, at a time before the internet when letters to his family — the only real way to communicate with them — took two weeks to arrive, Chritton decided to return to the U.S. and finally attend law school at Columbia University in New York.
After law school, Chritton joined the international law firm of Coudert Brothers in New York; he was sent to their Beijing office in 1993 when a wave of foreign investment was flooding into China.
“There were hardly any foreign lawyers in Beijing at the time, so when CEOs and other senior executives came to town, even a very junior person like me would end up meeting and advising them,” he said. “Though this was sometimes intimidating, it also taught me that you can be the expert in a particular situation, whatever your seniority.”
After four years in Beijing and another two with the firm in New York, Chritton was recruited to work for UPS, which had been one of his clients in China. At UPS, he was involved in the startup of UPS Capital, the company’s new finance and insurance subsidiary.
In 2002, UPS moved Chritton, his wife and children to Singapore, where he assumed responsibility for the company’s Asia Pacific legal affairs and later government regulatory matters, which covered China, Japan, India and Southeast Asia. After eleven years in the role, Chritton was promoted to Deputy General Counsel-International at corporate headquarters in Atlanta, where he eventually led a global team of 100 individuals.
“To lead a global team, I followed a few basics. The most important: LISTEN,” Chritton said.
“I always started by trying to understand local conditions and perspectives, so that we could make the best decisions for that location.”
Chritton would regularly travel to meetings in Asia for a week, then India and Europe. He said he learned to adjust to different global time zones and the varying cultural approaches of his team.
He had first learned the importance of understanding cultural nuances in college when he lived with a French host family who didn’t speak English for four months.
“Immersion is so critical to learn a language,” Chritton said.
Chritton said it’s vital for Moore School international business students to take the next step in their international career by living — and working — somewhere unfamiliar.
“Studying abroad is great, and students should absolutely take the opportunity to do so if they can, but working overseas takes you to another level,” Chritton said. “It means you will need to meet expectations of an employer and a boss from another culture, usually in another language.”
Chritton said he has seen this international-focused eagerness in students at the Moore School while serving as a Sonoco Visiting Fellow Executive in Residence.
“As a person who has spent his career in international law and business, it has been a joy to interact with Moore School students and faculty, who are eager to learn about business experience and practices out in the field,” Chritton said. “I am thrilled to see how the Moore School is so committed to international business education. South Carolina is fortunate to have such a hub of international learning at the center of its university system, and I’m certain the Moore School will continue to serve as an engine for international growth in the state and beyond.”
His advice to students is to continue to move forward with their aspirations, no matter the reach. When choosing to teach English in China, Chritton said his family and friends tried to persuade him not to do it.
Reflecting on this “life-changing experience” in saying yes to a unique opportunity, Chritton said, “keep in mind that people will try to talk you out of doing things like this! It usually comes from a place of love, but sometimes you must embark on the journey for yourself no matter what anyone says.”