9 Lessons Legal Departments of Any Size Can Learn from 2020’s Best Legal Departments

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Corporate Counsel released their annual list of the best corporate legal departments of 2020. In reading about what made each of the leading departments a worthy candidate for this high distinction, there were several trends that immediately came to light. From how they adapted through the COVID-19 pandemic to navigating more run-of-the-mill challenges like driving innovation or integrating post-merger, there are insights from the actions taken in these legal departments that can benefit organizations large and small.

Face challenges head-on

This year has been unprecedented in the variety of challenges organizations and individuals are faced with. For Tony West, the general counsel of Uber, disruptions came from all angles. Even prior to COVID-19, the rideshare service was facing allegations of sexual assaults by some of their drivers and an unexpected drop by the liability insurance carrier that enabled the global fleet of drivers to safely stay on the road. Every step of the way, Tony and his team swiftly met and began to remediate the challenges. 

Uber released a first-of-its-kind safety and transparency report to track and address the sexual assault claims and doubled their global safety team. The insurance company that dropped Uber was replaced with a broad panel of providers to eliminate this single point of failure. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the near standstill of the rideshare market, Uber had to act quickly and did unfortunately suffer reductions in headcount. Even with this leaner team and ongoing uncertainty, the legal department has shepherded the organization’s plan to acquire Postmates for $2.65 billion to complement Uber Eats and to diversify their offerings to support the post-COVID world. 

Pivot when needed

Many of the legal departments honored on this list faced the challenge of adapting to the new reality created by COVID-19 and the need to balance both the needs of remote workers and those that cannot do their jobs from home. In the case of 3M, there was a fundamental shift in not just the business of doing business, but also in what the organization devoted resources to manufacturing. The company had to pivot to producing and distributing N95 masks for frontline workers while keeping their employees safe. 

Retail companies were faced with a similar challenge of meeting in-person demand while keeping employees and customers safe. Luxury brand St. John Knits took a two-tier approach at the guidance of general counsel Christina Zabat-Franto to address this challenge by both facilitating large scale “back to work” mask deliveries for staff and customers as well as developing trainings their sales people in parallel to become virtual stylists to meet client needs without undue exposure to health risks. 

Lead by example

The American Cancer Society was especially impacted by the pandemic in that treatment for many cancer patients renders them immunocompromised and especially susceptible to the virus. To assist in the ongoing efforts to battle this virus, the American Cancer Society increased education about the unique risks cancer patients face and also converted some of their recovery centers into rest and recovery centers for hospital staff treating COVID-19 patients. Timothy Philips, the organization's general counsel, also created BrightEdge Impact Fund, the American Cancer Society’s donor-funded, philanthropic venture capital fund with an aim to promising cancer-related therapeutics, diagnostics, devices, and technologies.

Don’t be afraid to evolve

BlackBerry may not be the first organization you think of when innovation is mentioned. However, under the guidance of Randall Cook, chief legal officer and corporate secretary the organization has embraced AI-enabled cybersecurity and crisis communication. Furthering this AI-forward approach, Cook oversaw BlackBerry’s $1.4 billion acquisition of Cylance, an artificial intelligence and cybersecurity company. This acquisition moved BlackBerry from a consumer handset provider to a market leader in the security software market. And with this shift, Cook oversaw the final chapter in BlackBerry’s legacy smartphone business when he finalized the exit of the last licensed phone manufacturer. 

KISS: Keep it simple, stupid 

When newly appointed GC Loretta Cecil was tasked with creating a compliance program from scratch for newly merged McKesson Corp. and Change Healthcare she took a KISS approach. Rather than creating a set of policies as complex as the IRS tax code, Cecil sought to create a user-friendly and easy-to-read set of policies and equally approachable training to communicate the importance and substance of the policies. Once the foundation of this compliance program was integrated and engrained, she went one step further to create a continual culture of compliance with a roadshow to kick it off and ongoing “integrity talks” to engage employees in an ongoing way. This culture of communication and clarity enabled the healthcare organization to rapidly adapt to meet the challenges of COVID-19.

Data-driven efficiency 

In-house counsel has to be especially cost-sensitive because of their position as a cost center as opposed to a profit center like their outside counsel counterparts. In an effort to optimize her legal department and streamline delivery of legal services, the general counsel of Norfolk Southern Corp., Vanessa Sutherland, created a centralized legal operations team to dig through the data and find new ways of billing outside counsel and adding value to the company. 

Sutherland had a leg up because her 106-person department already had decentralized analytics in place. The magic happened when she was able to aggregate those insights and build a plan based on them. Looking back at 30 years of invoices, the team was able to find low-hanging fruit to atack for early wins, like bundling services with outside counsel to leverage historical data to inform negotiation and alternative fee arrangements. The insight-powered negotiation saved the organizations over $2 million in litigation fees last year. 

Embrace the future

Innovative technology and automation were a theme across multiple law departments with Gordon Food Service’s general counsel, Alisha Cieslak, helping to lead the charge. Cieslak’s team was utilizing cloud-based contract lifecycle management technology, Adobe esignature functions, and Google’s G Suite to mitigate time lost by waiting for in-person notarization and asynchronous contract drafting and unnecessary engagement with legal. She estimates upwards of 90% of standard agreements no longer require legal intervention, freeing her team up for more complex and substantive matters. The legal department uses data gathered through this automated workflow to improve clause creation and legal services rendered for the organization. This tech-enabled approach also enabled her team to easily shift to remote work when the pandemic hit with minimal disruption, since so much was already virtual. 

Pay it forward

The key to increasing engagement in a robust pro bono program is to eliminate barriers to entry and unnecessary risks. For GlaxoSmithCline’s assistant general counsel and pro bono committee chair, Andrew Boczkowski, that meant purchasing additional malpractice insurance for pro bono volunteers and increasing visibility of the pro bono efforts on social media. His actions have paid off, with a 70% increase in participation in the last year. His efforts in 2020 are focused on maintaining volume of pro bono support despite the lockdown and improving the inclusivity of the program for global needs. 

Make diversity a priority

The need for and benefit of a diverse legal and executive team was mentioned by many of the legal leaders nominated this year, but for the former head of Ford’s legal department and current top lawyer for the Coca-Cola Company, Bradley Gayton, it was a deeply held belief and top priority. When engaging with outside counsel, he focused on more than check-the-box diversity headcount and looked to create collaborative concerted efforts to integrate diverse legal practitioners into all aspects of their litigation portfolio. He would walk the hallways of law offices and not just settle for a meeting with 3-4 top brass to better understand the culture of each outside counsel. Gayton’s hands-on approach at Ford fostered the development of diverse in-house and outside legal teams while also creating pipelines for diverse individuals entering the industry. 

From longtime leaders of industry to new upstarts disrupting the status quo, the themes of adaptability, inclusiveness, and innovation played a major role in the top legal departments. Wherever your organization sits along the spectrum of established to disruptive, large to small, the benefit of these pillars is substantive. Embracing new approaches and technology, letting go of legacy ideas or products, and ensuring your organization evolves as needs and the world around you change are all key to remaining resilient and successful in 2020 and beyond.


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