Aarash Darroodi, the executive vice president and general counsel for Fender Musical Instruments Corporation, has made it his mission to evolve traditional notions of what it means to be general counsel. His innovative approach to the role has not gone unnoticed; he was recognized as the In-House Legal Counsel of the Year by the Los Angeles Times in 2023.
Darroodi, one of the keynote speakers at the MSBA’s 2023 Legal Summit, gave attendees a glimpse into how his unique experiences shaped both his worldview and how he approaches the practice of law.
To call Darroodi’s upbringing remarkable would be an understatement. Born in Houston, Texas, to Iranian parents, he traveled to Iran with his grandparents at the age of six months while his parents stayed in the United States to sort out issues with their visas. What was intended to be a short visit turned into a seven-year stay, due to the revolution in Iran and the subsequent war with Iraq. This experience shaped Darroodi’s perspective on the world and continues to have a profound impact on how he views people and approaches his job. He says would not change his history even if he could, because “that experience of being stuck in that war-torn country and being separated built me as a person.”
After his return to the United States, Darroodi and his parents settled in Maryland. He obtained a Bachelor of Science in Accounting from the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and then went to Georgia State University School of Law with the intent of becoming a tax attorney. He eventually landed a position as a tax attorney with Union Labor Life insurance company but sought a more entrepreneurial and creative environment. During a networking event, he connected with someone who worked for a private equity firm in Virginia that was looking for general counsel and offered Darroodi the job. In that role, he gained experience in the tech industry and working with Gen Z employees. A few years later, a recruiter noticed Darroodi’s tech background and invited him to interview with Fender. He joined Fender as their digital presence was expanding, and about a year later, he became the general counsel of the company.
Darroodi believes the story of how he became Fender’s general counsel best explains his hiring philosophy. In short, he does not attribute his rapid ascension to being a “brilliant lawyer” but to his ability to understand humanity. He explained how he was able to resolve an issue with importing Fender products from Mexico into the United States by finding a way to connect with a border official via her culture. He attributes his ability to understand other people to growing up in a war-torn country, noting, “You learn about human interaction and the fact that behind every company, every government institution, every legal organization, whatever it may be, they’re just human beings.”
Social intelligence and the ability to connect with humanity are fundamental attributes Darroodi looks for when hiring people, stating “What’s fascinating is when you do that, you uncover these incredible people that otherwise would never get a chance, including myself.” He explained that he values candidates who can connect with others on a deeper level and understand the importance of overcoming difficulties and believes that adversity shapes individuals and makes them stronger. He also believes that in the fast-paced world powered by globalization, general counsel can benefit from hiring people with diverse mindsets and experiences who understand the interconnectedness of different cultures and markets.
Darroodi promotes the idea of being a business-minded general counsel and talked about his concept of “lawyer 3.0,” which emphasizes business intelligence, understanding globalization, social intelligence, and mental health. He believes that lawyers should be well-rounded and not only educate themselves regarding the law, but also engage in activities that set them apart, such as charitable work and traveling the world, as “all of that becomes super valuable in the new world.” On a personal level, he shared that obstacles motivate him to prove he can succeed. He is not governed by vanity, though, and is cognizant that he represents something bigger than himself, noting, “I’m the first Iranian American general counsel of any major U.S. organization. That means something to me.”
In terms of transitioning to in-house counsel, Darroodi advises lawyers to gain business intelligence and acumen before making the move, noting they are joining complex organizations, and every decision that is made has implications across several facets of the business. He shared that his own experience with gaining business intelligence came from his creation of a relaxation beverage in law school, the obstacles he faced when trying to distribute and sell it, and how he ultimately overcame them.
In addition to his experiences in Iran, Darroodi believes Maryland shaped him as a person, sharing, “No matter where I am . . . it doesn’t matter. I’m still from Maryland. It keeps me grounded.”