Name: Krisann Kleibacker Lee
Title: Senior Corporate Counsel, Social Responsibility & Sustainability – Amazon Web Services
Firm Background: Krisann was an associate in the general litigation group in the Minneapolis office from October 2005 to March 2011.
Faegre Drinker alum Krisann Kleibacker Lee now serves as senior corporate counsel for Amazon Web Services, but her path to becoming an authority in sustainability law began with a semester abroad in South Africa during her undergraduate days.
“I took an environmental law class,” Krisann said. “I also took classes that centered on post-Apartheid reality and social justice issues as entwined with local law and international relations — how western government pressure was one of the things that ultimately toppled Apartheid. All of those lessons stuck with me and were kind of a kernel of interest that propelled me forward. In law school, I really gravitated toward learning about things that picked up on that same thread, but there wasn’t a name for it then. We didn’t call it sustainability law or use the term ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance).”
After a clerkship in the District of Minnesota federal court, an offer came to join the M&A team in our firm’s Minneapolis office — and Krisann knew it was the perfect step for her.
“I was like, ‘this is a no brainer.’ I felt very comfortable and confident after watching for myself how Faegre Drinker litigators showed up in court. They conducted themselves in a way that made me feel like I could be part of that team and feel proud being part of that team.”
Krisann spent a year with the M&A team, then had an opportunity to make the move to litigation. She chose general litigation, as that is where the environmental work was at the time. By following her passion for environmental law, Krisann honed her writing and advocacy skills as she wrote briefs for matters across the country. She was thrilled to be working at the forefront of her area, learning how different companies operated and advocating for clients in the emerging areas that would become ESG.
Five years of litigation experience prepared Krisann to make the leap to an in-house position. Coming out of a long trial for Cargill on environmental natural resource issues, she was approached by the company’s legal team with an offer. While the decision to leave the firm was not an easy one for Krisann to make, it brought an incredible opportunity to ultimately build Cargill’s sustainability legal program from the ground up.
“It started out as a special project for the general counsel, to dig into the question of whether we should have a lawyer or team dedicated to sustainability issues. This was a time when Cargill, like many other multinational companies, was considering whether to take sustainability on as a layer of strategic business decision-making in a way that hadn’t been done before by American companies,” Krisann explained. “A lot of American companies were asking questions for the first time like: What is their sustainability strategy? What are they going to focus on? Climate? Water? Human rights? Are they going to have a supplier code of conduct? Are they going to write a human rights policy? I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
By the end of Krisann’s tenure with Cargill, she had built a team of lawyers and paralegals around the world who dedicated a percentage of their docket to sustainability efforts, as well as a compliance team addressing areas such as forced and child labor compliance and anti-deforestation sourcing policies. At the same time, she also was serving as general counsel for the company’s global bio-industrial business.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as Krisann reached the 10-year mark at Cargill — and like many others, she took some time to assess where she was and where she wanted to be.
“I picked my head up and looked around. Do I want to spend another 10 years here? Or am I ready for something totally different? And I really was at that point in my life. I wanted to go somewhere that was hyper innovative and pushing the envelope. And I really wanted to be a full-time sustainability lawyer,” Krisann added. “That’s where my passion is.”
Krisann was considering a change just as Amazon began the search for a pair of senior sustainability attorneys. The timing worked out, and she is now the first full-time dedicated sustainability and ESG attorney for Amazon Web Services. The most public work of Krisann’s team is Amazon’s climate pledge and net-zero carbon goals.
Thinking back on her early days as an attorney, Krisann has several major takeaways from her time with Faegre Drinker that have shaped her career path. In addition to the advantage she had from her in-depth knowledge of corporate complexities, she credits our firm’s focus on pro bono work for giving her a unique perspective.
“I really believe that the incredible support that we had to do pro bono gave me the opportunity to be more directly hands on in handling these kind of smaller pro bono cases entirely on my own,” Krisann said. “That gave me another layer — learning how to figure things out myself. I came to be very self-sufficient and scrappy in these pro bono cases, and I don’t think I appreciated until after the fact that Faegre’s support of pro bono was actually one of also the great advantages that I got from the firm.”
Krisann and her family are now based in Seattle, where she enjoys practicing yoga and spending time hiking and camping. While she doesn’t have a crystal ball to predict the entirety of her life and career, Krisann is pleased with where her journey has taken her.
“It is still interesting to me and I feel like I am doing good work that has a real impact in the world,” she said, “and that’s what has drawn me to the law always. I think that the scale at which you can make an impact at a major company is just — there is no substitute for that, and so that’s where I want to be to make my mark.”