Denniston is General Electric's general counsel. As such, he oversees the largest corporate legal department in the world.
After graduating from Kenyon, Denniston attended Harvard Law where he edited the law review, and then served as a clerk to Herbert Y. Choy of the U.S. Court of Appeals. From 1974 to 1982, he was an associate at Goodwin, Procter and Hoar in Boston; he later ditched corporate law to join the U.S. Attorney's office as the head of the major frauds unit. He returned to Goodwin as a partner in 1986 and remained there for seven years, until public service called once again and he became counsel to then-Massachusetts Governor William Weld. In 1996, Denniston moved to Connecticut to join GE, and was named to the general counsel job in 2004, replacing Benjamin Heineman Jr.
GE is the world's second-largest company with more than 300,000 employees, and their legal department is the largest in the corporate world: Denniston oversees more than 1,200 attorneys and his department has an annual budget that exceeds a $1 billion. There's a good reason so many lawyers work at GE, of course. The company is engaged in hundreds of legal matters at any given time, from complex litigation to intellectual property work.
Denniston had a tough act to follow when he was tapped for the general counsel job in 2004. His predecessor, Ben Heineman, was considered one of GE's most knowledgeable and seasoned execs. But since taking over, Denniston has earned praised for dramatically reducing the number of outside law firms the company works with and instituting an "early warning system" to address legal issues before they become urgent. He's also made efforts to mediate disputes instead of going to court. That said, GE's lawyers are still happy to take an opponent down in a courtroom, if necessary. And it's not all roses for Denniston. In 2007, GE was sued by Lorene Schaefer, the former general counsel of GE's transportation arm, who claimed that the company discriminates against its female lawyers.
On the job
Denniston reports to Jeff Immelt and works closely with other members of senior management, including Jeff Zucker, Ron Pressman, David Nissen, John Krenicki, Scott Donnelly, Beth Comstock, James Campbell, John Dineen, and Charlene Begley. Although Denniston works with dozens of outside law firms, he's particularly close to Stephen Dannhauser and the Weil Gotshal team, which handles many of the company's largest—and most sensitive—corporate/M&A transactions.
American Lawyer awarded GE's in-house legal department first prize in 2007. "From using technology creatively, to managing its litigation proactively, to overseeing a select group of law firms, our winner, General Electric Company, does it all," the magazine concluded.
Denniston and his wife Kathy have three grown children. They live in Fairfield, Conn., not far from GE's corporate HQ.
For the record
The department has a number of illustrious graduates. Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler and newly-installed Home Depot CEO Frank Blake both worked in the GE legal department.