Pratt & Whitney’s Joe Santos On The Importance Context

The best advice isn’t given in a vacuum. Joe Santos encourages his legal team to contextualize its guidance at Pratt & Whitney

Joe Santos stands in front of a Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engine, one of the company’s largest engines that powers wide-body aircrafts. PW4000 engines have collectively logged more than 150 million dependable flight hours with more than 100 commercial operators worldwide.

Joe Santos’s mother was the first woman to wear pants in the small Portuguese village of Sobral da Lagoa. “She showed me that it’s possible to go outside the lines and bust through barriers,” Santos recalls. This lesson shaped his illustrious career. His parents always impressed upon him that he could accomplish anything he put his mind to, and that belief endured. Santos graduated high school, attended college, went to law school, passed the bar exam, and began his hugely successful legal career without missing a stride. Today, he serves as general counsel for Pratt & Whitney, one of the biggest players in aviation.

His family moved from rural Portugal to the United States in 1969 when Santos was nine years old. As he learned English in grade school in Massachusetts, he grew to love English literature, which was eventually his major at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. “I love literature because I love identifying the beliefs and subtexts that motivate characters,” he says, “and this very skill has been a driver of my legal career.” Now, Santos is known to quote soliloquies from Shakespeare in all-team meetings at Pratt & Whitney. “Lines from a play mean one thing if you read them alone. But if you read them in context, they take on a whole different meaning,” says Santos. “In the practice of law—especially at a large, international company—it is critical that we understand motives, contexts, and circumstances of the parties involved. Only then can we give sound advice.”

After finishing his undergraduate studies, Santos went on to law school at Boston College and studied international law and diplomacy at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy alongside students from around the world. He credits those peers—and their lunchtime debates—with sparking his interest in the international arena.

After graduation, Santos worked for large firms in both Cleveland and Boston where he handled litigation, corporate law, environmental work, and a broad array of legal issues. In 1993, he received a call from a recruiter for United Technologies Corporation, the multinational conglomerate that owns both Pratt & Whitney and Otis Elevator Company. That call led to a two-hour lunch with two of the company’s top lawyers, during which they recognized in Santos an especially important talent: his ability to understand the subtext of an issue. “I think they were interested in me because of my international background and my ability to understand and uncover the problems underlying a case,” explains Santos. Those abilities remain central to his successes as Pratt & Whitney’s general counsel today.

Throughout his career with United Technologies Corporation, Santos negotiated contracts, supervised litigation for Otis North America, worked as chief counsel of the commercial engines unit at Pratt & Whitney, and served as general counsel at Hamilton Sundstrand (another United Technologies company). There, he managed the $18 billion acquisition of Goodrich Corporation—the largest acquisition in aerospace history. Santos returned to Pratt & Whitney as general counsel in 2012.

Pratt & Whitney is the epitome of an international company. It does business in every corner of the world, negotiates billion-dollar deals, and makes a product that must continually move around the globe. It does business with international airlines and governments. Santos’s team is responsible for large-scale litigations, contracts, and compliance matters that will impact the company for years. For example, Santos has been responsible for deals with Airbus, the US Government, and foreign militaries. He and his team must maintain partnerships while handling disputes, litigation, arbitration, and compliance.

Santos says he’s most proud of his team’s work to “take ethics and compliance to a whole new level.” As in-house practice evolves to focus on these issues, Santos has stepped up his efforts to make sure Pratt & Whitney leads the way in a heavily regulated environment. Pratt & Whitney is a high-tech company that relies on skilled employees working together to build engines that operate at very high levels. “We are driving a framework of ethics because it results in people who perform at a higher level,” says Santos. “Our talented employees work on supportive teams to build great products that drive our business forward.”

As the industry moves toward more fuel-efficient engines, Pratt & Whitney is developing products that reach unprecedented ratings. The success or failure of these products can make or break several fiscal years. Therefore, Santos says his legal team must understand the subtleties of the industry and realize how each clause of a contract can impact business decisions. As in Shakespeare, everything must be understood in the bigger context of the overall vision. One current deal is Pratt & Whitney’s 2013 contract with the Pentagon for its sixth lot of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter engines. Pratt & Whitney will deliver a total of 38 engines for $1.1 billion.

In this environment, Santos says his job is to advise senior management. “It’s about each person understanding the resources of the department. The department is here to support the entire company at all levels,” he explains. To do so, he works to ensure that every person on his team, regardless of position, is infused in the business. “They can’t just sit in an office waiting for an issue to arise,” he says. “They need to be part of discussions, business meetings, and strategies.”

He runs a rather large legal department (170 people), but Santos says he uses the same approach he would use at a smaller company. He looks for intelligent lawyers and other professionals who are willing to collaborate and work hard on every project they encounter. “Nothing is below us in terms of the work we will respond to, and nothing is above us in terms of the challenges we have to meet,” he says.

Lastly, diversity plays a key role in his department’s success. A diverse team that draws from different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives helps a legal team solve complex issues in fresh and creative ways. Santos once served as the executive champion of Pratt & Whitney’s Hispanic and African forums and now leads the pride forum, representing gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and allied (GLBTA) employees. The active groups help him attract and retain the bright legal minds he needs to advise his business associates at Pratt & Whitney.