'A car guy' Chrysler Group lawyer enjoys being part of auto renaissance

By Sheila Pursglove

Legal News

Thomas Wolfe had it wrong -- you can go home again.

Such was the case for Birmingham native Chris Zammit, who returned two years ago to work as Senior Staff Counsel-Distribution and Trade Regulation for Chrysler Group in Auburn Hills, after spending time in Georgia, New York and Illinois.

"I bought a house in Beverly Hills from a previous neighbor. I go to the same church I went to as a kid. And my kids are near their grandparents," he says.

Zammit, who earned a bachelor's degree in math and economics at the University of Michigan, first left the state to attend Emory University School of Law in Atlanta.

"I'd always thought of a career in law," he says. "I was a math guy at Birmingham Groves High School and had an inspiring teacher. At U-M, I figured economics was a good application of math. Then I found I could do a joint degree."

While Zammit mulled over whether to follow a business career, a turning point came when he joined Phi Alpha Delta. There he enjoyed guest speakers, including business professionals with law degrees.

"I decided I wanted a career at the intersection of law and economics," he says. "I also enjoy history, which ties in with antitrust -- the Sherman Act, Clayton Act, and the mood of the country at the turn of the last century -- antitrust involves law and history, and law with an economic bent is a real fit for me."

After Emory, Zammit worked as an associate with Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York City, focusing on litigation, antitrust and regulatory matters. He was involved in a wide range of cases in federal courts around the country, and represented foreign and domestic companies in complex regulatory and antitrust matters.

"I had mentors at the top of the field there. I enjoyed the culture, and had some very interesting cases," he says. "I learned to write, and to think in a legal sense."

His next step on the road back to Michigan was four years as an associate with Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, once again focused on litigation, antitrust and regulatory matters.

"It was a bit of a culture shock, but I learned a lot," he says. "Weil, Gotshal was a subject-matter-specific firm -- for example, IP litigation or securities. At Kirkland, everyone is a litigator first, and generally handled cases in a variety of subject matter areas."

"At Weil, Gotshal, I learned to think like a lawyer -- at Kirkland I learned to fight like a lawyer.

It comes in handy now. I have to fight tenaciously sometimes, and at other times I have to say this isn't a fight worth having, let's find a business solution. I got to see both sides at the two firms."

At Kirkland, Zammit did automotive legal work, and worked with GM lawyers. When a position opened up at Chrysler Group in Auburn Hills, he jumped at the chance to come home to the Great Lakes State.

"Chrysler Group's a fun and interesting place to do legal work. Plus I'm a car guy -- my dad jokes that I found my dream job," he says. "I drive a test vehicle each year, currently a Dodge Durango and I recently had a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Plus, I often swap with colleagues - I'm in heaven."

Zammit joined Chrysler Group as the company was starting its climb back from its April 2009 Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"It's a rewarding experience to be here, to have a role in working to bring back the local economy," he says. "It was the right time to join the company. I quickly assumed key responsibilities and worked with many senior execs. I ended up in the distribution group, representing the dealer network division in the three western business centers, supporting our Mopar division, handling key automotive financing agreements, and serving as the company's primary antitrust lawyer. I also get to be a business counselor, trying to stop problems before they happen."

Zammit pays kudos to Holly Leese, senior vice president, general counsel and secretary of Chrysler Group.

"When I arrived many, if not most, attorneys had either retired or left. She was not only faced with numerous complex legal issues, but also had to rebuild her staff," he says. "She's hired great lawyers and has given us freedom and her trust. I hope we all continue to earn that.

"The folks at Chrysler Group are true believers in the company's future. It's a tremendous opportunity to be at Chrysler Group, especially in the legal department. Everyone here has a real sense of purpose."

In his spare time, Zammit is involved in Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church in Beverly Hills, volunteers at his children's schools, and enjoys collecting coins. He and his wife Colleen are expecting a baby in May, a sibling for 7-year-old Nicholas and 5-year-old India.

Published: Fri, May 11, 2012