Guest post: The role of a legal operations director—an interview with Unilever’s Saswata Mukherjee

At a time of rapid change in the industry, lawyers’ roles are becoming increasingly innovative. We talk to Saswata Mukherjee, Global Legal Operations Director at Unilever, about the value an operations function can bring to the efficient and smooth running of a legal team.
Tell us about your background and career history
I started with Unilever 14 years ago and have since done multiple roles within the legal function. I first joined Unilever in India, in legal business partnering roles across the country for sales and supply chain or factory-related issues. I then moved to Singapore for a supply chain transformation project involving countries in the Asia.
In Singapore, I moved to a corporate legal role and took over responsibility for championing competition law in Asia. When the GC for that region left, I briefly covered that position until the opportunity for Global Legal Operations Director in the UK came up. It was a newly created role and so was a move out of the comfort zone of being a lawyer.
What were the drivers for creating the role?
When Ritva Sotamaa, our Chief Legal Officer (CLO) joined Unilever, a little over 3 years ago, she came with a vision of making the legal team ‘world class’ in everything we do. This not only meant lifting talent profile across the legal group but the basics of the legal operations needed to be set up. In Ritva’s vision, firstly it was important to optimise the external resources—law firms and other legal providers such that the law external providers work as an extension of the in-house team, second was to change the learning landscape for in-house legal team in Unilever and providing platforms/tools within Unilever which provides training in both soft skills and technical legal skills and last but no means the least is to step change and leverage technology to simplify processes and workflows across legal group.
What does your role involve?
I am part of the Legal Management Team (global legal leadership team) which includes the cluster general counsels and the other subject matter experts across the organisation. We work closely together to drive the strategy and vision of the legal function.
One of the biggest parts of my role is external provider strategy and planning, covering law firms as well as legal process outsourcing.
Another major part of the job is looking at how we use technology. Historically, being a support function, legal has had limited budget from the business to do anything with technology. Part of my role was building a strategy and road map for what the technology supporting the legal function should look like. We’ve already implemented an e-billing matter management tool and will have a contract life cycle management tool next year. We’re also looking at e-discovery and consolidating our databases.
The simplification of processes is inherent in my role. We’ve looked at what we could stop doing, what we could simplify, and what we could outsource. I don’t have a large team working with me, nor do I have any country or local teams but I work with the Legal Group across countries. The Legal Group in Unilever is a compact in-house team with small centralised expertise teams and most legal teams in the countries where Unilever operate. My role is to work through our legal networks and pull through the strategy and vision of the legal group in terms of external Legal providers, technology for legal and learning for the Legal group.
The role also covers training and learning needs. Part of this was setting up a Legal Academy. New lawyers can struggle to understand Unilever as it is such a big company. It was really important that we provided an on-boarding and induction programme as part of the Academy.
We recognise that knowledge and technical ‘lawyering’ skills are important but also that soft skills specific to the legal function are crucial. For our lawyers to move forward, they need the skills to manage external provider partnerships and to use technology to provide better solutions for the business. The Academy helps with this. It also addresses career development by sharing experiences rather than providing tick boxes on a piece of paper.
You mentioned contract life cycle technology – how did you gain the knowledge to enable you to unpick the needs of the business?
When we put together our IT strategy, one of the biggest pieces was contract life cycle management (CLM). Using an external consultant, we started off by looking around and interviewing lawyers to get a picture of our current model and what our requirements were. Procurement had already started doing some ground work regarding CLM so we joined hands with them to work on the project together. They were obviously only looking at the procurement side of contracts so it has been a bit of a struggle to understand the differences in our ways of working.
I have worked with a small project team which includes senior legal team members and one of our legal service providers, Pangea3. The Pangea3 team has helped in building and implementing the CLM tool.
It’s a huge project when you consider the business and change management involved. Some business functions have been in a global centralised structure for years now. However, not all parts of the business have and that’s where change management is important.
How did you develop your knowledge about the kind of technology you should be looking at, or the evaluation questions you should be asking for your panel?
There is a lot of knowledge and information internally as well as in the external world. A lot of ground work was done involving consultants, providers and other peer companies. When we did the panel for the first time, I spoke to people, including our law firms, who had been on the other end of the process, and other companies who had set up their own panels. A lot of them have said ‘don’t do it’. Finding out why they thought that helped thrash out some of the problems we might encounter.
I have a lot of business partners who support me in making decisions. For procurement I have a business partner who is dedicated to legal, and that includes panels, external providers, outsourcing, IT projects, and buying. I have an IT business partner who supports me with all the technical areas, eg how we integrate one system with another. I also have a finance business partner who supports me on a number of these activities.
Do you think that all legal teams should have someone in your role?
Yes, It may be different for other companies where the basics are already there and they just need to evolve and improve. We as a Legal Group had little control on how much we were spending, how much we were saving and what was valuable to us. All these questions needed to be asked. You need a role in the leadership team to say that this is what we want, this is what we have, and this is the vision. If you can’t present that agenda in leadership meetings, you can’t move things forward.
If you were trying to build a business case for a role like yours, what are the key value areas you’d highlight to your board to say this is why the role is needed?
You can show the numbers for savings and efficiencies. You can also show numbers in terms of the mood of the organisation when you do something new in relation to learning. We launched the legal academy in April and it’s still in the top three for hits within our whole organisation.
As soon as you put the person in place, you get immediate returns related to spend and savings. Technology can take longer – maybe 2-3 years. It’s all measurable and therefore you can make a very strong business case.
Would you ever go back to being a GC or will you continue in this role?
Yes, I would, because the lawyer in me always wants to go back there. From a career perspective, I’ve worked internally with all the different functions in the organisation, something which I wouldn’t have done if I was doing particular work within legal. I wouldn’t have interacted with all the different countries that I have. The external operations I’ve been involved with has given me a really important skill—understanding and knowing the market.
As a lawyer, you need to continually up-skill. This role has given me a great understanding of how the CLO works and how a CLO wants to improve legal functions working and that’s a tremendous start. It’s been a fabulous experience.
By Sophie Gould, head of LexisNexis PSL In-house. This interview was first published within LexisNexis PSL In-house