How to manage a geographically-dispersed department

This article was written by Caroline Spiezio for Corporate Counsel and can be found at: https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/07/a-legal-team-geographically-divided-how-to-manage-a-dispersed-department/

Amazon is hardly the first company to geographically disperse employees in recent years, a transition that’s left many GCs attempting to manage staff around the country and globe.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal reported, Amazon is planning to split its second headquarters into two different cities, dispersing its growing workforce to more locations around the U.S.

While Amazon’s search for a second home base was one of the more public examples of companies’ diversifying geographically, the tech giant is not the only company to open large offices away from its original HQ. For many general counsel, having a dispersed workforce and legal team is the new norm.

“Companies are much more global today and more likely to have non-U.S. offices and want to have legal support in those spaces.”

Said Jason Winmill, managing partner at legal department consulting company Argopoint.

“So the [geographical] fragmentation of legal departments is here. It’s in full swing. It’s a reality, and many, many legal departments large and small grapple with that.

Winmill said the transition from a centralised to dispersed legal department isn’t always an easy one. If not managed well, different offices could have different cultures and feel disconnected and isolated from the rest of the organisation.

Expressing shared goals for department culture and management structure may help with that challenge. Nancy Jessen, the senior vice president of legal business solutions for UnitedLex said a good place to start is ensuring that legal staff in each office use the same titles for the same roles and follow the same promotion criteria.

She also said it’s beneficial if team members and leadership roles can be spread among offices.

“You can’t have one location be considered the ‘good location’ and everyone else is an outpost. Say we distribute our leadership, we distribute teams to force that interaction as well, because otherwise it becomes the land of the haves and have-nots.”  

Legal teams can also take advantage of available technology to communicate with colleagues in other locations. Jessen said online messaging, video conferences and even phone calls are ways to bridge the gap between locations.

But meeting in-person always helps. Maureen Brundage, currently a senior adviser at BarkerGilmore, said making time to meet legal staff in person is a crucial way GCs and chief legal officers can create a department-wide culture.

Brundage was previously the executive vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary and chief ethics officer of Chubb Corp., leading a legal team of more than 135 people spread around the globe. Every other year, she said legal staff from every location would gather at the company’s headquarters in New Jersey.

Legal team members from Asia, Latin America and Europe were able to meet business people at the company and their U.S.-based department colleagues during a series of multiday meetings.

Brundage said she also made a point to travel and visit various office locations around once a year. This, she said, is a helpful way for legal leaders to learn about what’s going on company-wide, directly or through reports. It also allowed her to speak with those in other offices about the value legal adds.

“Make sure people are feeling a part of the whole and not feeling isolated. As well as [that] you really know what’s going on with your team around the world.”

This article was written by Caroline Spiezio for Corporate Counsel and can be found at: https://www.law.com/corpcounsel/2018/11/07/a-legal-team-geographically-divided-how-to-manage-a-dispersed-department/

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