If you want to be an effective leader, you need to be able to look at the big picture and shake things up once in a while. So argues Michelle Ifill, the dynamic vice president and deputy general counsel of international telecommunications company Verizon Business. Tried and-tested practices and ways of working have their place, but Ifill believes that it’s too easy for legal departments to become complacent – and that’s not something she intends to let happen to her team.
‘If we as leaders aren’t willing to challenge the way that we work, then how can we expect our employees to do anything other than follow the norm?’ says Ifill. ‘It might seem safer to some to stick with existing practices. But, in my view, it’s much riskier to just continue down those same old paths, doing the same old jobs, in the same old ways.
In the thick of it
‘Just look at the rise of companies such as Apple,’ she adds. ‘Verizon is competing against companies that didn’t even exist in the telecommunications space five years ago. We can’t just sit back and think it’s okay to keep doing things the same way. Corporate legal functions need to move with the times if they are to meet the demands of the business.’
Ifill joined Verizon in January 2006 after the company merged with telecoms provider MCI and formed the Verizon Business unit to meet the needs of corporate clients. She’d been a staff attorney at MCI since 1993 and played a key role supporting the company in refocusing its efforts on supplying services to businesses.
Ifill now leads a department of 125 attorneys and legal assistants who provide commercial legal advice and contract negotiation support to business units in the US, Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Those attorneys are spread out among Verizon’s regional and global offices so that they can work in closer proximity to the company’s business units and customers.
‘Because of the industry we’re in – both global and specialised – it’s important for the sales teams to feel like their attorneys are in the trenches with them,’ Ifill explains. ‘I know that many other businesses of our size prefer to group their legal department in one centralised location – and there are obvious benefits to that – but, for me, it’s important to be close to our internal clients.
‘It’s all about customer experience,’ she adds. ‘By basing our attorneys on the ground, we can better understand the dynamics of each region. Even within the domestic US market, there can be considerable variation in terms of contract negotiation.’
It helps that Ifill has Verizon’s global IT infrastructure to call upon in the management of her team. But it takes a particular type of lawyer-manager to be able to step back and relinquish day-to-day control in this way.
A smaller world
‘Is it challenging to run a team that is spread across the world? That’s often a question that I get asked,’ Ifill says. ‘And, yes, one of the reasons that firms like to have all their lawyers in one place is ease of management. When you’re dispersed, it is more difficult to be close to your team and what it’s doing on a day-to-day basis, and that makes it harder to identify any challenges or issues that attorneys may have with workload.
‘But look at the practice of law today versus five or 10 years ago, and the technology that we now have,’ Ifill continues. ‘We’re operating in a global world and one that has become smaller. So I don’t think it’s a challenge that can’t be overcome.’
In fact, making the world smaller is what Verizon as a business is all about, and Ifill believes that it’s only right that the legal department practises what the company preaches.
‘Ten years ago, if there was a contract negotiation meeting in Asia Pacific at midday [late evening in the US], it could be a challenge to get people on a call or the necessary documents delivered on time,’ she explains. ‘But, between Verizon Business’ global presence, the company’s video conference technology, smartphones and all the other products that Verizon sells, that’s just not the case any more.
‘The legal department has to capitalise on the technology that Verizon is providing to our customers,’ she adds. ‘With the appropriate use of these tools, distance should not impede my ability to successfully manage a team.’
The personal touch
It helps that Ifill enjoys her management role: ‘Most lawyers don’t relish the role of manager,’ she laughs, ‘and not all of them are that good at it either. I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve been successful. It’s what I really love doing.
‘Verizon Business has a group of highly motivated and hardworking attorneys – people who have a lot of interest in excelling,’ she continues, ‘and part of my role is to support them, however I can, so that they become stronger year on year.’ Ifill thrives too on the magnitude and variety of the work coming through her door. ‘There’s just never a dull day,’ she says, ‘and I want it to remain that way.
‘It’s a really dynamic time for us as a company and as an industry. There have been leaps and bounds in terms of technology in the past five years, and Verizon has been the driving force for a lot of that,’ she adds.‘Every week, there are new products and services being created and the legal department plays a key role in getting them to market. It’s exciting to be a part of that.’ But Ifill emphasises that this excitement could easily pall if the legal department wasn’t supported appropriately.
‘Our attorneys’ motivation is to get the deals done efficiently and effectively,’ she says. ‘But, at the same time, the department is being put under pressure as the demand for its services is increasing, and internal business units and their customers are expecting quicker turnaround. ‘What’s not increasing is the number of lawyers or the budget at our disposal. That’s why part of my job is to ask myself: How can I help my attorneys to move the ball quicker than they ordinarily would?’
It was this that led, in 2009, to Ifill’s decision to outsource a number of its contract review functions to CPA Global. Ifill explains that her department is robust with senior level attorneys, but light on junior lawyers and paralegals. ‘I don’t hire direct from law schools; we need attorneys who can negotiate complex contracts, and that comes only with experience,’ she says. ‘But, often what it entails is the team spending too much time on low-end matters. Until legal services outsourcing (LSO), we didn’t have a clear solution to that.
‘I was sceptical about the cost savings of LSO in the early days,’ Ifill adds. ‘But I was absolutely sure that my team did not need 10 years of legal experience and a degree from a well-known law school to do many of the matters that they dealt with every day.’
Instead, Ifill was able to free up her team considerably by taking low-end, routine work off their desks. ‘But just because work is “routine” doesn’t mean that it’s not necessary,’ stresses Ifill. ‘It’s that, by giving this work to an LSO provider, it allows my attorneys to be more strategic. They don’t need to spend their time reading through 100-page-long contracts to find a specific term or condition. That information is provided by an outside party in the form of contract summaries. So, instead, my attorneys are freed up to approach contracts more holistically; for example, by addressing inconsistencies in those terms or conditions, or using them as precedents.
‘Preparing contract summaries is hugely important work, but it takes a lot of time,’ Ifill adds. ‘It also takes my team away from negotiations, which is where I need them.’ Ifill says she understands the reluctance of some of her peers to embrace LSO. ‘Many well-established companies, including ours, operate in heavily regulated spaces,’ she says, ‘so there’s often a sense of not being comfortable in letting certain areas go. They want to be able to oversee the work that’s being completed.
‘But, because of the set-up of my team, I can’t operate like that anyway. I have to be comfortable with letting people just get on with their jobs. We’re a global company and we have lawyers around the world. We’re used to working remotely. The only difference with LSO is that it goes through a third party.’
Ifill says that she also understands concerns as to quality. ‘Of course, attorneys will be nervous about output and repercussions over standards of work,’ she explains, ‘but we’ve found that quality has absolutely not been an issue. The feedback from my team on quality and responsiveness is very strong.’
However, Ifill concedes that there is often some pushing to do to get internal teams to recognise the benefits. ‘You have to promote to them the need to let go,’ she says. ‘They’re the ones writing the contracts, so you have to be sympathetic to their concerns. But those concerns have now been satisfied, which is why we’ve been able to roll out LSO more aggressively in the past year.
‘You also have to appreciate that LSO is changing the way that people work,’ Ifill adds. ‘And, yes, as a leader, it was important for me to be seen to be a promoter and facilitator to make it easy for the team to embrace the concept. But now that it’s up and running, I’m able to step back from the day-to-day in order to concentrate my time on other efficiencies.’
Ifill stresses that LSO is absolutely not a personnel-saving exercise. ‘When I talk about driving efficiency, I’m referring to improving the way that we work; it’s not about downsizing,’ she says. ‘Instead, it’s about maintaining our resources and deploying them on to work that is commensurate with the team’s experience and ability.
‘As the business grows, our work has become more challenging and demanding, but we don’t feel we need to increase our budget for external counsel to help,’ she adds, ‘we’re moving the lower-end work out to other suppliers instead. In this respect, LSO is a gamechanger. Progressive legal departments should be investigating this option.’
Indeed, Ifill is keen to see more expansion in the use of LSO in Verizon. ‘The priorities for our business in 2011 are: to partner to encourage innovation, speed-to-market and scale; to unify global customer experience; and to improve service quality and operational excellence,’ she explains. ‘The legal department and LSO will have a key role to play in achieving all of these goals.’
Michelle Ifill sets out some of the benefits of LSO support to Verizon Business
‘Our attorneys are so busy negotiating contracts and managing internal customer requirements that it’s hard to find the time to sit back and look at the contracts, to find ways to streamline them or make them more efficient. CPA Global is helping us go through and index our contract templates, which means that our attorneys can then make strategic decisions as to which terms are duplicates, redundant or non-critical. By simplifying the contracts, we’re also simplifying customer experience.’
‘Some of Verizon’s customers have been using its services for five, 10, even 15 years, and, every three, six, or eight months, they may bolt on a new service. But, if the attorney simply amends the master terms each time, it won’t be long until the original contract becomes totally unwieldy. A 10-year-old contract with pages and pages of amendments is far from ideal. CPA Global is helping us to consolidate these contracts by summarising their contents, so that the next person who picks it up has something more streamlined to use.’
A global service
‘We’re a global service provider, so we need to be sure that our contracts work around the world, while making them as standard as possible. Clearly, an indemnity provision in a negotiation with an attorney in Denmark is going to be different from one in Nagasaki, so we need to look at local laws and make decisions as to whether the language we’re using is global enough or if we need to put together regional variations. CPA Global is compiling the various terms and conditions used by our attorneys to date. The internal teams can make decisions as to what they need to revise, thereby improving customer experience and their own workload.’
This article first appeared in Legal Strategy Review, issue 7