In a recent interview with The Practice, Jennifer Daniels, chief legal officer and secretary of the Colgate-Palmolive Company, discussed her views on the importance of teamwork and collaboration in the legal profession.
Why do you care about the extent and quality of collaboration among partners in your outside law firms?
I have been blessed to work for a number of great global companies, and I can tell you that almost every significant legal issue I have encountered has been multifaceted in nature. It is rare to have a problem that has only one dimension. Solving these complex issues requires individual lawyers to work together. To give an example, even the most straightforward business transaction often has implications beyond the expertise of either the engagement partner at the law firm we have hired or even the partner who has the particular expertise in the primary area of the deal. Being able to get law firm partners and in-house lawyers to collaborate with one another and present a unified and business-focused solution is much better than having to go out to many different specialists individually and then having to harmonize everything. The reality is that the nature of business has changed sufficiently such that work is more complex, more dispersed and more global. As a result, we are often not looking for the advice of just one lawyer with one set of expertise. I am looking for the advice of many lawyers across a spectrum of jurisdictions and issues. That puts a real premium on collaboration.
Given that problems are increasingly complex, is there a way that you want your advisors to think about them? Do you want the lawyer to say, “OK, I’m on it. Let me go away behind the scenes and come back to you with a package”? Or do you prefer to see, so to speak, “how that sausage is getting made”?
Being able to get law firm partners and in-house lawyers to collaborate with one another and present a unified and business-focused solution is much better than having to go out to many different specialists individually and then having to harmonize everything.
I not only want to see how the sausage is made, I like to participate in the process! This is actually a model that you are seeing in more and more companies. Because how a particular business is structured, and therefore how a particular legal solution will or will not be executable, is often unique to that business, it is necessary for in-house counsel to work closely and collaboratively with outside counsel. Let me give an example. Some businesses are centrally controlled and tightly linked by process and technology. Others are deeply decentralized. Outside counsel might say, “What you need to do to solve this legal problem is X.” By having a lawyer from our in-house team closely collaborating with outside counsel, he or she has the business knowledge to say, “While I agree that we need to do X, we can’t operationally do that unless and until we have the systems and people in place. We need to figure out a way that our company can actually implement that solution.” Having someone on the in-house team who can think, “OK, I know my business, so how would I actually execute to get this done?” is critical.
This comes up a lot in compliance. An outside lawyer might say, “You need to train every one of your people in a particular compliance area. The way you need to do that is you need to roll out a web program that all employees will take every year.” What that outside lawyer might not think about is that your business is all about global manufacturing, and in many locations, individual workers might not use or have easy access to computers. If someone from our in-house team is collaborating with the outside lawyer, he or she can immediately chime in: “Well, my company can’t do it that way. We need to have more hands-on classroom learning in the factories and a way to deliver and track training manually in those manufacturing environments.” Being involved throughout the process allows you to craft a better solution that is tailored for your company.
What do you say when you encounter lawyers who are afraid to say, “I don’t know”?
I’m always happy to hear a law firm, even one whose relationship I deeply value, tell me that they are not the right people for a particular assignment. That’s the kind of advisors I want—people who care about us getting the best advice possible, even if it is not from their firm.
The most dangerous lawyers on any team are the lawyers who are not willing to say, “I don’t know,” and who either pretend that they do know or don’t do their homework to collaborate with someone who does. I am not in the least bit afraid of saying “I don’t know.” I am deeply suspicious of people who purport to know everything. The best people are those who know what they don’t know and who know how to get help when they need it. I want lawyers who, when they don’t know the answer, diligently apply themselves toward finding people who do know it and then proceed to work with them in productive ways. I often say that the best skill of a good general counsel is to be a great issuer spotter, someone who knows how to identify where help is needed and has the insight to go get it from the right people. Sometimes that help is available within your own team, and sometimes it isn’t. I’m always happy to hear a law firm, even one whose relationship I deeply value, tell me that they are not the right people for a particular assignment. That’s the kind of advisors I want—people who care about us getting the best advice possible, even if it is not from their firm.
If you don’t know the law firm or the lawyers, what are the signals that you use to determine whether or not you think they will be collaborative, both with one another and with your team?
I was lucky early on in my career to work for a company that had a very deep relationship with one of its main outside law firms. In-house lawyers and outside lawyers worked together pretty seamlessly. In fact, assignments were sometimes shared by in-house and outside lawyer teams. It was a symbiotic relationship. So, for me, it’s a little bit of “I know good collaboration when I see it.” But I also monitor. For instance, I may want to get deeply involved in a matter and ask that there be regular calls that include the whole outside legal team. Some firms are happy to do this. Other wrestle with it and will try to talk me out of it from a monetary or efficiency perspective, saying that it will be costly to have their whole team on the call. I will sometimes push back and say that some of the purpose of the team call is to educate the outside legal team about our business. If a firm wants to have a deep relationship with our business, their people need to know and understand what we do and how we do it. The more a firm’s lawyers know our business, the more we are going to want to hire them. So we have to come to some kind of accord where everybody can participate. But some of that training should be on the law firm’s dime, and some of that participation on our dime. If you have that conversation, most firms are willing to find an appropriate middle ground where we are both investing in deepening our relationship and achieving great results.
If a firm wants to have a deep relationship with our business, their people need to know and understand what we do and how we do it. The more a firm’s lawyers know our business, the more we are going to want to hire them.
Do you feel that the pushback or resistance that you get to that suggestion is stemming from individuals who are concerned about their nonbillables? Or is it coming from somewhere else?
A lot turns on how people are measured. In law firms they’re generally measured by the billable hour. But firms are increasingly making sure that their associates understand that they’re also measured and evaluated on how deeply they’re forming relationships with clients. I’m a big believer in metrics driving behavior, and I look for things like whether an outside firm encourages its lawyers to develop relationships with their clients—and when they do, if they are rewarded for forming those relationships.
Do you dig into what their metrics are, or are you just inferring based on their behavior?
I don’t say, “Show me how you compensate your lawyers,” but I try to get a sense for how their people are being measured in the law firms we use. It’s a mixed bag. Generally it’s what you’d expect: billable hours, realization rate, originations—all the traditional measures. At some firms you can see that they are spending time investing in associates’ business development skills. If a firm asks me and my team to help in that process, they’re obviously putting some wood behind the arrow. They’re thinking about how to form deep relationships regardless of who is in the partnership seats.
How do you think about metrics for your own team in-house?
On the simplest level, in big companies there are always metrics that are driven by the company’s strategy and values. First and foremost, the law department needs to be directly aligned to those company objectives. There are also quantitative metrics that we apply directly to the law department: How many contracts did we do? How quickly did we do them? How quickly did we get back to our clients? How well did we manage cost? How many cases did we win? Then, at an individual level, I always try also to think of assessments in terms of goals centered around the values that the company cares about. For example, one of the things that I asked my team to do this year was to think about their individual performance goals in relationship to Colgate’s values of Global Teamwork, Continuous Improvement and Caring. I asked them to set goals related to each of these values, and at the end of the year, we will measure how well everyone did vis-à-vis those value-driven goals.
Are law firms receptive to having in-house counsel intrude on the way they go about running their firm?
I don’t think they love having those conversations. They have law firms to run, and I’m only one voice and we are only one client. Frankly, they need to run their firms as they see fit. However, I do think it is important for them to know what’s important to their clients. In my view, the way to have the conversation is to say, from the client’s perspective, “Here’s how your system, your values, your metrics drive the behavior of your lawyers. Here’s how that behavior affects our ability, together, to get work done effectively and efficiently.” The best law firms are open to those sorts of discussions.
One of the things that you have talked about in other forums is how you closely scrutinize legal bills and can get a sense from them how and where collaboration is happening. What does that mean?
I have a very particular way that I look at legal bills. I typically get bills by matter. When I get a bill, the first thing I look at is how many discreet timekeepers billed time on the matter. Within that, I will ask whether I recognize who all these people are. Have I interfaced with them? Have I or my team met them?
When the number of timekeepers gets too big, too fast, or there are uneven spikes, I generally think that there isn’t a lot of deep collaboration going on.
Secondly, I look for spikes in the number of timekeepers. A huge telltale sign that there isn’t a lot of collaboration going on is when the number of timekeepers shoots up. When the number of timekeepers gets too big, too fast, or there are uneven spikes, I generally think that there isn’t a lot of deep collaboration going on, either because the work that is getting done isn’t getting done efficiently or because all of the people who are involved aren’t necessarily working together effectively.
The next thing I do is look at any circumstance where someone has billed an extraordinary number of hours in a day. I literally scan down the bill, and I usually use 10 or 11 hours as my cutoff. Did anybody bill more than 10 hours in a day this month? If so, who are they? Where do they fall within the hierarchy, and what were they working on? That’s usually pretty telling as well, because, again, really good collaboration means people are working in a steady-state way where there shouldn’t be too many crazy peaks and too many crazy valleys. By way of analogy, a factory that is humming along, doing what it’s supposed to be doing without too much overtime and without too much under-time, is probably pretty efficient and probably everyone knows what they’re supposed to be doing. If I see a lot of spikes, absent a trial or other extraordinary circumstances, that usually is a sign that someone hasn’t planned well.
You have been quite passionate talking about associates and bringing associates up through the system. What are your thoughts in terms of the role that you play as the client in mentoring?
It is hard for associates. I try very hard to form relationships with the associates at the firms that I work with. I also try to make sure associates get good work, including courtroom roles in trials that a firm is handling for us. I view my role as making sure that we were making appropriate opportunities for people—in-house counsel and outside counsel—to stretch their skills consistent with getting the job done well.
I also try to form individual relationships with associates. I think it’s important that they can pick up the phone and call me if they need something and they don’t have to go through the engagement partner on their side. Frankly I think the engagement partner should also want that. I also try to work on that by going out to lunch with associates when I can and always making sure that they know they’re appreciated by the client.
Jennifer Daniels is the chief legal officer and secretary of the Colgate-Palmolive Company. She serves on the advisory board of the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession.