An interview with Mark Lágler, Unilever - A practical approach to delivering global advice in-house

Going global

Mark Lágler, General Counsel – Supply Chain and ETS, Unilever, describes Unilever’s practical approach to delivering global advice in-house.

So Mark, tell us a bit about your role.

My current role has involved building a new team that supports the legal services for our Supply Chain, Procurement and Enterprise Technology Solutions (Unilever’s Global Business Services) teams. There are 16 of us, based in the UK, US, Netherlands and Singapore, plus we provide guidance to many more local lawyers based with our businesses worldwide.

How did you approach building this new global team?

At Unilever we find it extremely important that legal teams reflect the global structures they support in the business, so one of the first things we thought about was how to encourage the lawyers within the team and those that we work with closely around the world to break out of their local silos.  The business units we work with are focused on global excellence and creating efficiencies.  As a team we need to echo that drive to share best practice, collaborate across borders and find the best ways of working.

We also wanted to make sure that we consistently brought the best skills to the table and were resourced to support the changing nature of the projects emerging from the new business unit.  In part, we achieved this by recruiting lawyers with very particular expertise into the team, including an outsourcing specialist, a construction specialist, a logistics specialist etc.  We also wanted to up-skill the lawyers already working in the team, so it was also really important to Unilever to create an atmosphere and a way of working where all the lawyers in the team are encouraged to share knowledge on an on-going basis.

To make this work in practice, we collaborate online, we ask our external law firm partners to share know-how and guidance with us online and we also run a calendar of training events around the world, which we either organise ourselves or are invited to by law firms. This means we’re continually creating opportunities to learn and work together, despite geographical constraints.

Who are the customers for this team?

We work with a number of leadership teams and their sub-teams across the Supply Chain, Procurement and Enterprise Technology Solutions organisation.  Our approach is business partnering, so we will work with the teams to understand where they are likely to need our input and what the best way to deliver this is. Our remit is to focus on supporting the most complex global and regional agreements, and to provide a framework to help local lawyers supporting smaller deals to deliver similar advice and results.  We quickly realised, and I’m sure this will resonate with other teams, that there was always going to be more demand on our services than we could easily supply and so that led us to start thinking about how to make our service more efficient.

Where did you start to look for efficiencies?

One of the first things that we did was to work with the team to create a set of global precedents that we could all use, with some local tailoring, to do the bulk of our work on.  This was great, not just because it made our work simpler, but also because it helped to add to the sense of all being one team, despite being based across the world.

In order to create and maintain the precedents, we built a forum online where anyone in our wider team can share insight, updates and best practice.  This also simplifies how we train the rest of the business; as we are working from one core set of documents, we can go into depth with managers in terms of how the documents work, what to look out for and when to engage with Legal. Harmonising our documents like this also meant that we had a high enough volume of work to justify using a dedicated team at an offshore legal process outsourcer (LPO) to help us speed up response times.

What other projects did this lead to?

Once we’d started thinking in this way, looking for harmonisation and similarities, it was a logical next step to think about other areas that would benefit from a similar approach.  That’s where our global competition initiative started, which has led to us creating a global approach to competition issues on the buy-side, a training programme for 1,000 people and a detailed manual that we’re rolling out worldwide.

That sounds like a huge initiative, how did that come about?

As a business, we are continually looking for new ways to do business and to encourage global innovation.  It’s obviously important to us to maintain a high standard of advice to our commercial colleagues on competition matters and doing this across multiple jurisdictions was a time-consuming and technical process.   In order to maintain the high quality of our advice and speed up the time within which we could deliver, we wanted to develop a practical, global approach to key issues that called out specific in-country differences and allowed local lawyers and business managers to flex their approach, if required.

And how did you make this happen?  Did you engage external counsel?

We did get support from one external lawyer, but much of the work came from within Unilever.  We started with a first draft that summarised an approach that would work for Europe, which we compiled with a lot of help from our European competition lawyers.  Then we worked on sending this out to the supply chain/procurement lawyers around the world and our global competition specialists; asking for feedback and amendments until we had enough coverage to present a global approach.

Did you use any knowledge-management tools or other resources to help you with that?

To be honest, we didn’t need to.  We collated feedback either via email or as mark-ups on Word documents.  We then reviewed and edited the content into a final draft we were all happy with.  Luckily, we had some other manuals that had been produced, so we were able to re-purpose the artwork they used so that the final manual was practical, easy for commercial colleagues to read and also, importantly, looked the part.  It’s important for documents like these to be well-produced and designed professionally, as it helps secure credibility with the business.

We’re lucky enough to have an online collaboration network called “Chatter”, which helps us share know-how and insights online. We also have various portals that help us share precedents, guidance notes and manuals, either within the legal teams or out to the wider business.  Tapping into these tools makes it easier to promote what we do and get instant feedback.

What’s the impact been so far?

We are still in the process of rolling out all the training to commercial colleagues, so it’s too soon to capture feedback across the whole business.  However, feedback from our pilot was that commercial colleagues are really pleased that we are presenting a global approach to these issues and providing practical guidance on the issues and scenarios they face, its also now taking less time to get them the answers they need.

What advice would you give in-house lawyers contemplating similar projects?

In any business, you will find you have opportunities to simplify work and improve the service you deliver if you look for similarities across the way matters are handled.   The three key things are: find the time to think about where these opportunities are; get your people engaged and show them how collaborating makes their jobs more interesting; and use tools and resources you have already in your business so that you can make changes without having to invest too much upfront.

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