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Structuring a global team

In 2001 - 2002, I was part of the Coca-Cola Global Legal Function redesign team. This was a small group of Coca-Cola in-house lawyers from around the globe. Over the course of six months, we had a series of meetings to map out how we would move from a decentralised to a centralised function (or unitary function, as we called it). 

As part of this shift, we moved away from hard line reporting into local management. In its place, we set up a dotted line reporting system into management and, from there, hard line reporting to the GC based at global headquarters. 

One of the main rationales for such a change, is it's considered best practice from a governance and compliance perspective. A centralised structure can have the benefit of lawyer's in the field not feeling pressured by local senior management to give the advice they want to hear; and empowering them to give the advice the corporation needs, safe in the knowledge that their compensation, bonus and ongoing employment are determined by the GC, not by local management. 

The centralised model I believe does have all the benefits listed in the article. Additional benefits, such as global budget management and oversight, flexibility to move legal talent around the world for development purposes and the ability to adapt legal resources to the changing needs of the business, can also more easily be achieved through a centralised structure.

One the biggest potential hurdles in the move to a centralised structure is likely to be dealing with negative reactions across the business. Often senior management will be worried about losing "their lawyer" or that there will be misalignment between business objectives and legal objectives.

To minimise negative reactions and ensure as smooth as possible transition to a centralised structure it's essential to enlist the support of management from the CEO down. Without their buy-in any changes in structure will be fraught with difficulty, met with significant resistance from the business and highly unlikely to succeed.

In practical terms, provided the transition to a centralised function is well understood and supported by senior management, any initial negativity should be overcome as management soon realise their in-house lawyer is still an integral part of their local management team and the level of support they receive has not changed. In other words, from the business perspective nothing has materially changed and its business as usual! 

Recruiting local lawyers

The local law firms I have worked with have often been very good sources of legal talent or able to recommend people from their wider network. When a firm lawyer joins their client, or a firm can facilitate an introduction from their network, it can really strengthen the relationship between the two organisations. Alternatively a secondee from a local law firm can also be very helpful to bridge gaps whilst you search for a new lawyer. Secondments also have the benefit of providing the firm lawyer with valuable career experience as well as a deeper understanding of your business, which they can then leverage when working on your matters .

It's vital to take the necessary time to find and recruit the right people for your local legal team. You need to not only make sure they are well qualified but will also be a good match for the internal culture of your organisation. It's equally important to ensure that local management are involved in the recruiting and interview process, and comfortable with any appointment made, as they will be the ones working with them on a day to day basis.

Without local management involvement, they may feel that a new hire has been forced upon them. Involving management in the process will not only make it easier for the new hire to quickly settle into their role, build relationships and be accepted by the business, but also hopefully have a seat at the leadership table.

Language skills are also still very important in many countries, especially English, particularly when interacting with the rest of the global legal team and head office.

In many developing and emerging markets, it can be challenging to find good qualified talent to bring in-house. Also the competition for talent can be quite intense in some countries. Many firms or companies simply pay people more to avoid them leaving for another job. Even if you are able to recruit good talent it's becoming harder to retain them, as people are constantly being lured away or poached by other firms or companies by the promise of larger pay and benefits.

One retention strategy that maybe helpful is to give talented team members an expanded role with more responsibility. Expanded roles and development opportunities are great ways to recognise people's contributions to the business and the legal function and often lead to increased job satisfaction, which should in turn result in higher retention levels. 

I was incredibly fortunate to benefit from a development assignment. During the time I worked in Australia, I was posted to Shanghai and a Chinese lawyer took my role in Sydney. It was a pivotal experience and development opportunity for both of us as well as a great retention tool.

An early orientation at HQ for new lawyers is ideal. However, in practice it can be difficult to achieve, especially if you’ve not had a lawyer in that country for a while – or ever at all – as they’ll likely be swamped when they start and will find it difficult to make time to travel to HQ. That said, I would suggest that all new company lawyers be given a structured immersion and orientation at HQ within the first year to 18 months. 

Communicating and managing across time zones

Working as part of a global team it's essential to be aware of global time zones when scheduling calls and meetings. For example if it’s 9am in the US, it could be 3am in Sydney. So always consider how things will work for the rest of the team in other geographies. 

Regular communication with and amongst your team is vital for staff retention and well worth the investment of time. Losing good staff is incredibly expensive and disruptive to the business.

Face-to-face team or individual meetings are by far the best and most productive way to communicate. In-house lawyers can often be the only member of the legal team in a regional office. So it can at times be lonely job and unlike their business colleagues, or for lawyers working in a law firm, you cant simply just walk across the corridor to a colleague for advice or a second opinion.

An incredibly valuable part of face-to-face team meetings is the socialisation that occurs at team drinks, dinners, lunches and breakfasts. This is where people really get to know each other, learn from each other, exchange ideas and become connected as a global team. They then tend to reach out to each other more often in the months and years afterwards.

To make the most of your face-to-face team meetings, its essential to make the most of your time together by having a well defined agenda, agree in advance what business you want to cover and outline what decisions you want to make. Give everyone involved in the team meeting a role, such as presenting on a key topic, at the meeting. Ensure they’re all engaged and contributing to the discussion. 

Forming cross-jurisdictional interest groups such as global virtual networks around subject matter areas such as competition, marketing, social media etc is an excellent way to communicate best practices and enable global team members to connect virtually.

The global virtual networks I was involved in were structured so that a Senior lawyer on the Leadership Team took a sponsoring role; a chair was appointed to run the meetings (and would be rotated each year) and members from all around the globe at all experience levels, were involved in the network. Of course, picking a time for a global call was hard and sometimes two calls were needed to ensure all locations were covered. We asked our network members to contribute agenda topics and take turns at presenting on local issues. Subject matter experts from HQ also attended from time to time. This gave our local lawyers the opportunity to learn from each other as well as get to know the subject matter experts, their roles and gain access to their deep subject matter expertise. 

Managing cultural differences

As the article makes clear, it’s essential to be acutely aware of cultural sensitivities when you work in a global organisation. There will, for example, be a number of dos and don’ts. Familiarise yourself with these through research and sensitive preparation before your dealings with people from other countries. Specific areas to consider include:

  • Gender sensitivity and diversity;
  • Hierarchy and seniority - at times age and/or gender may trump experience and/or skills; 
  • Loss of face and avoiding embarrassment – some cultures, especially in Asia and the Middle East, respond negatively to foreigners advising, or even suggesting to them, what they should do. You may need to deliver your message through other means, such as local in-house counsel or local outside counsel; and
  • Language – differing levels of ability can lead to large gaps in understandings among people when they leave the room. When words are translated they often mean different things in different cultures. For example, “We will use our best endeavours to do X," can be taken (when translated) to mean "We will do X." Also, people in some cultures will agree to certain things in the room, yet have no intention of following through on them. That’s just the way matters are dealt with in some cultures. Alternatively, they may have to run it up the chain of command to seek approvals at various levels. Some cultures, meanwhile, simply don’t like conflict, so they don’t want to say directly no. So what they are saying may sound like a 'yes', but it is in fact 'no'!

Knowledge management and sharing

If you set up virtual networks, consider having a network SharePoint for the group to share information, ideas, precedents and best practices. This can be a great resource for all members of the global virtual network.

Responding timely to your colleagues in field offices is vital. Remember, the local country lawyer may be the only lawyer in that office and HQ may be their only source of assistance. If their requests go unanswered, you run the risk of field lawyers going elsewhere for guidance or advice. They may then make decisions or provide advice contrary to organisation-wide policy or inconsistent with how a given issue is being handled in other geographies. 

Aligning goals and legal department strategy

Of course, global legal objectives must be aligned with global business goals. However, take time to understand and review local business and legal objectives as well. This will help you avert conflict between global and local priorities. 

Global standards, policies and actions can affect your organisation at local level, so good communication and coordination with field operations is essential. How your organisation communicates with competition regulators, for example, should be consistent across geographies, allowing of course for cultural sensitivity. A significant variance in approach from one geography to another may well create local legal issues in other jurisdictions, as well as negative local and global PR. 

Conclusion

Developing and maintaining trust within the global legal team as well as with your business partners at all levels is critical. Global in-house legal teams who have a deep understanding of the business and work very closely with their business colleagues more effectively manage legal risk and add significantly higher value to the business. 

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