The constant in our professional lives is change: new legislation, new markets, new trends. As in-house counsel, we provide foundational support for the business’s needs, adapting ourselves and our teams to meet the continuous shift in strategy and priority common for companies of all sizes.
At Newell Rubbermaid, we have transformed from a holding company to an operating company model with the goal of becoming the pre-eminent consumer durables company in the world. Our strategy is to unlock areas of trapped growth, develop performance-driven teams, allocate resources to priority growth opportunities and improve execution — all of which will accelerate brand growth in emerging markets. Our legal team supports this strategy as a partner function, but we have embraced it as our own as we provide the counsel to take our people and leading brands like Sharpie, Paper Mate, Irwin and Rubbermaid Commercial Products into faster growing emerging markets.
While our department has grown to meet the company’s needs and evolving requirements, we consider emerging market coverage to be the next “frontier.” As vice president and deputy general counsel, I work to ensure successful global expansion for our business segments while maintaining or improving our risk profile by following these guidelines:
Align with strategy and prioritize
We are responsive to the direction that our business leaders want to take, and we adapt our own priorities accordingly. At the same time, we have a great deal of responsibility to control selling, general and administrative expenses, and to ensure that ample resources are invested in our growing brands. So, we reallocate and pivot towards priorities to maintain or improve the risk profile while holding spend constant. Obviously, this will entail reducing resource allocations to less strategic or value-added activities to fund the new priorities.
Be nimble and responsive to changing business needs
As we expand, we ask our in-house people to be flexible and understand that their roles are evolving along with the company’s strategy and priorities. We have taken on a flatter legal structure which expands the opportunities for individual roles by making them larger, more challenging and diverse and more professionally satisfying. This includes giving attorneys a chance to help our company expand overseas.
Getting the balance of inside and outside counsel correct is important. As we grow in emerging markets, we initially rely more on outside counsel. Putting someone new into a region requires careful consideration, but we hire globally when there is a need, the economics make sense and we feel that we can get the right person in there to be impactful. Compared to developed markets, legal work tends to be less scalable in emerging markets, where sales volumes are lower and you tend to find more legal complexity due to the number of different legal systems involved. However, where you find you can pay for them, in-house attorneys in these markets can help avoid issues more proactively because they are closer to the business than outside counsel. At some point the business in such markets may reach a level of critical mass where hiring a resource makes sense. While we look at metrics and look to fund new hires with savings on outside counsel costs, the tipping point as to when to hire in emerging markets more of a judgment than a science.
Leverage similarities in regions
Different markets’ varying legal systems can make it difficult to practice across borders. Attorneys are typically only experts in the legal systems of their own countries. With a few exceptions (such as you might find in certain respects in Europe) there is no “regional” law. However, there are cross-border synergies that can be leveraged when mapping out global legal coverage. For instance, Australia is in many ways similar to North America from a cultural and legal perspective, so instead of placing responsibility on our attorneys in China within our Asia Pacific region, our North American attorneys manage a number of issues (and outside counsel) there. Similarly, because of the prevalence of Spanish and parallels among legal systems in many countries in Latin America, we may use the same in-house counsel to lead legal services from country to country while leveraging local outside counsel where we need it. This strategy is effective for the business, but it also develops our people by providing them with opportunities to expand their roles globally and hone leadership skills.
Avid mentorship, shared best practices
There is no substitute for global experience for an attorney in a corporate role. To ensure our rising attorneys gain this experience, we rely heavily on mentorship. In my previous role as group general counsel for our writing business, I worked with one of the most global businesses of Newell Rubbermaid’s portfolio. My experience with disputes and transactions in Brazil, Mexico, India, the Philippines and China among others is something I share with my team today. Only experience will tell you how things work in reality in these markets, such as what is customary in negotiation and how quickly, efficiently or fairly the legal system moves. We discuss these matters in the regular reporting rhythm I have with my team. Constant communication is required for mentorship, and even more so when working with colleagues internationally.
Do your research, stay on top of trends globally
To manage a global legal function, you need to keep up with trends or patterns affecting your key markets and prioritize accordingly. For us, like many companies, intellectual property protection is a mission critical aspect of emerging market expansion. Don’t assume you have all the protection you need based on your experience with a brand or technology in the United States. Conduct in-depth research before you enter the market.
We also take significant time to ensure we’re following and adhering closely to both U.S. and global corruption rules and global product regulation. The pace of these areas is rapidly accelerating and not in a particularly streamlined method. To keep up with these trends, we find that it helps to give subject matter experts within the department global responsibility and let them use local personnel for in-market support. We also rely heavily on regulatory alerts from law firms and other vendors and the knowledge of our distributors and commercial partners.
Emerging market expansion is certainly the next legal frontier for Newell Rubbermaid. We calculate our moves to maintain or improve our risk profile globally and protect our brands, technology and people, while continuing to toe the line on our overall costs.