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2022 Corporate Counsel Handbook: Managing the In-House Team

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Adam Brzezinski of MoneyGram, Alex Florescu of Nepi RockCastle, Andras Levai of Market Epito, Andrzej Klimek of Idea Getin, Eleni Stathaki of Upstream Systems, Gunel Rzayeva of VavaCars, Ingo Steinwender of CA Immobilien, Ioana Regenbogen of ING, Iwona Gajek of BNP Paribas, Mark Erdelyi of Yettel, Marta Ziolkowska-Nasinska of Fererro, Nadia Matusikova of RWS Moravia, Stefan Orosi of Prima Bank Slovensko, Sylvia Nanovska of Telelink, Tiina Pukk of Kou Mobility, Zeynep Derman Kucukonder of Coca-Cola, Zita Toth of Primaenergia, Zuzanna Kopaczynska-Grabiec of Wonga.pl, and more share their insights into how their in-house legal teams have been evolving and their best practices on managing in in-house legal function.

Team Sizes

The Small but Mighty

Of the GCs who shared information on their in-house team size, 66% report a team of under five people, themselves included. Of these, 43% report being the sole legal counsel either within the company in the case of national ones, or within their country in the case of international ones, with 9% stating that they are only joined in the department by a junior.

Most GCs with a relatively small team point to a straightforward hierarchical structure, with them overseeing all legal aspects with the support of one or two direct reporting lines. In about a third of cases involving smaller teams, the GCs report having joined the company relatively recently, in some cases as the company’s first GC. Gunel Rzayeva of VavaCars, for example, says she joined the company “in January 2021 as the first in-house legal counsel of the group. After six months, we hired a junior legal counsel, then a paralegal, and lastly a contracts manager.”

Smaller teams seem to lean towards a more generalist approach. Sylvia Nanovska of Telelink, for example, says they “are a team of three people responsible for all legal matters in the group, including subsidiaries abroad.”

As Eleni Stathaki of Upstream Systems explains, “due to the team’s size, we cannot afford a high level of task specialization, so we all do a bit of everything, as needed,” but even for her “small but mighty team” there is a tendency to have a focus area for each. Stathaki tends “to advise on strategic matters, provide guidance to the legal team on various matters, including its interaction with other departments and stakeholders, and handle major commercial and corporate projects,” while also managing “the team’s budget, which is no small task considering we work with over 25 outside counsel worldwide.” Of the other two colleagues, one focuses on “commercial issues and compliance issues as well, such as our anti-bribery and corruption program and, of course, handles the data privacy issues,” while the other “handles all corporate governance and works closely with procurement for all supplier contracts.”

Similarly, Tiina Pukk of Kou Mobility says that, in her team of three, there are: herself, “responsible for the whole group legal affairs, legal operations, and compliance in general,” a legal assistant, and a commercial lawyer “responsible for B2B relationships (customers, suppliers, partnerships, etc.) and product markets.” In Clementina Canel’s team at Fepra, the legal department is split between “two people dedicated to the business core and one person (half time) dedicated to the corporate area.”

In a few cases, the smaller teams are split into divisions, such as in the case of Radu Culic’s team at Roche, which has two other in-house lawyers in the team, one for each division of the company. “Both report to me, and I am responsible for both divisions.”

The one area most often reported to be covered by a focused team member was data protection. Wioletta Kaloska of Symfonia explains her team consists of “three people: a general counsel, a legal counsel, and a GDPR expert.” Adam Brzezinski of MoneyGram reports his team “consists of three individuals responsible respectively for employment around the globe and privacy in Europe. They are all based in Warsaw, Poland, where MoneyGram International has its shared service center. One senior legal counsel is responsible for employment matters in the Asia-Pacific and Africa regions, and for France and Belgium in Europe. Two others, both privacy analysts, are doing privacy work for Europe but also, occasionally, for the entire globe. This is because, as an international corporation in over 200 countries and territories, complying with the various local laws and regulations worldwide that govern the collection and processing of personal data can be a challenge without a comprehensive and coordinated approach. That is why we have implemented a global privacy strategy that applies the higher standard of the European Union’s GDPR’s privacy standards throughout the MoneyGram brand.”

External counsel were highlighted by all GCs who are running one-man teams. “In case of capacity shortages, we are working with external legal firms,” explains Viktor Fonth of HB Reavis, who is currently the only lawyer in the Hungarian operation. Zita Toth of Primaenergia also says she turns to external lawyers in case of need or in specific legal issues. And the GC of a private equity firm explains that “while in the past the legal team, thanks to its size, was able to take lead on transactions (including also their commercial aspects), we have now shifted to a structure where legal support on transactions and financing projects, as well as on local operational topics, is outsourced to external law firms. The legal team is responsible for supervising these external law firms and providing the required guidance to ensure our standards and specifics are complied with. In these circumstances, the legal team is more focused on internal operations and, primarily, the regulatory and compliance aspects of those.

Coming into Focus

17% of the GCs that disclosed the size of their legal teams report a team of between five and ten people. 

Here, specializations start occurring more often. In a third of the cases, this happens along function lines. Zuzanna Kopaczynska-Grabiec of Wonga.pl, for example, reports that her “legal team at Wonga consists of eight persons and covers, inter alia, the area of regulatory, commercial, data protection, AML, corporate governance, compliance, and quality assurance (internal audit).”

More often though, the focus tends to be based on geography, or a matrix between functions and geography. Zeynep Derman Kucukonder of Coca-Cola, for example, explains she has “a great, competent team of eight covering 25 countries in Coca-Cola’s Eurasia and Middle East operating unit. We have one counsel responsible for one franchise/operations and two legal assistants supporting the counsel to focus on more impactful matters. All the counsel have functional responsibilities in addition to their respective geographies. This structure allows the team members to have a well-rounded growth beyond their geography.” 

Whatever the Split, Flat’s in Fashion

The other 17% of GCs report a team larger than ten people, usually in the heavily regulated sectors of energy, TMT, and banking. The latter, in fact, has the largest teams on average, by a clear margin, with Stefan Orosi of Prima Bank Slovensko describing his in-house legal team counting six lawyers as “small.”

While, for these larger teams, specialization is consistently reported, almost all still highlighted a flat structure, with all team members reporting directly to the GC. As an example of the exceptions, Mark Erdelyi of Yettel Hungary points to his lawyers “working in two offices (teams), under the direct control of two Heads Of – as [his] deputies.” One of these offices “is the Commercial Legal Office, and mainly deals with customer-related issues, including marketing communication, competition law, telco law, consumer protection law, etc., while the other is the Corporate Governance Legal Office, dealing with corporate, finance, procurement, wholesale, data protection, internal governance, and similar activities.” But another TMT company General Counsel explains their team of 20 lawyers is flat, and all report directly to them. “The team is experienced, so the lawyers were independent but, due to the dynamics of projects and challenges on the market, I need to keep an eye on all of it.” This, they explain, also has to do with the nature of the company as a “market challenger,” while in the past, working for a “mature TMT company,” the legal department consisted of 12 people, where only four reported to them. “This was due to the fact that most of the processes were already well understood and did not pose such major challenges and, therefore, could be handled by people with less experience and managed in project groups.”

In terms of how the team is split, Andrzej Klimek of Idea Getin Leasing explains his team of 12 is divided into four main functions: corporate, courts proceedings, legal support for businesses, and compliance and personal data – such a functional approach is reported by 62% of the GCs with teams larger than ten people. Others, such as Iwona Gajek of BNP Paribas, report a split based on services and products, with her team of more than 55 people being “divided into smaller offices of ten to 15 people, with the split depending on specialization (corporate banking, retail banking, IT projects, etc.). Just over 10% report a matrix split combining functions and areas of expertise, with ING’s Ioana Regenbogen explaining her team of 24 lawyers “is structured based on the type of client segments addressed (retail banking, mid-corporate, and wholesale banking clients – both corporate, but split based on size of turnover). The team is then split based on the type of legal activities that we are providing: transactional, non-transactional (includes litigation, procurement, labor law, competition, sales network development), and the DPO (data privacy officer).” Similarly, Alex Florescu’s Nepi RockCastle team of 25 legal professionals is split based on department and area of legal expertise. 

Team Size Evolution

Bigger Business, Greater Complexity, Rising Risks

Half of GCs report their in-house legal teams have remained the same size over the past two years. Only 4% report their teams have shrunk over the same period, with 46% saying theirs have increased. All of those whose teams shrunk point to departures from the team that were simply not replaced, and none mention actively cutting down their numbers. 

In terms of team expansions, two-thirds explain their growth was directly linked to that of their business. Sylvia Nanovska of Telelink explains simply that “the workload is growing, as is the group I am working for.” Eirini Florou of Holcim says her “team increased due to the group’s expansion,” with Nadia Matusikova of RWS Moravia explaining the growth occurred “after the acquisition of a former competitor. The workload multiplied and we had to reinforce the team.”

According to Dora Szebeni of the Vanguards Fashion Group, her team grew from two members to four. “The business was growing, and we had diverse and complex legal tasks within the group.” This also hints at the second most common reason behind team expansions – that of increased complexity, highlighted by 22% of those who saw growth in their in-house legal functions. “This increase is mainly attributable to the needs of the business, in light of various challenges or the regulatory and business environment,” says Alex Florescu of Nepi RockCastle. Mark Erdelyi of Yettel Hungary adds: “The world is getting more complex and the legislation governing our life is getting more voluminous. Also, some substantial projects require dedicated lawyers. Overall, this led to a slight increase in the team, including its internal and external resources.”

Similar to Erdelyi, Gunel Rzayeva of VavaCars explains they “tried to hire a Data Governance Manager in the legal team but couldn’t find a perfect fit for the role – and then we suspended that role. We have an open role in our team: Internal Control and Compliance Manager.” And dedicated compliance, especially in terms of data protection, is a recurring theme. Adam Brzezinski of MoneyGram explains his “team has increased in terms of numbers, mainly because of the rapid development of privacy laws around the globe. Digital innovation is reshaping the way most industries and businesses are functioning today. It is said that data is the new gold. Operating with integrity and unwavering ethical standards is essential to the success of our business, and these high standards apply equally when considering the privacy of our data. Being a data-driven company, MoneyGram needs every transaction data to be collected and processed at multiple points. Hence, when ordering, transmitting, and storing data, we must ensure the highest data protection and security level to protect our employees, consumers, and business partners. We care about privacy, and increasing the number of in-house privacy professionals embodies our commitment to handling personal data in compliance with all applicable laws, rules, and regulations in the countries where we do business.”

And with rising complexity come rising risks, the latter being the third most common (8%) explanation for growth. “My team in the last two years has been increased by about 10 people, due to the need to manage a significant risk – lawsuits on CHF-denominated loans. The key part (except the CHF issue) remains unchanged,” says Iwona Gajek of BNP Paribas.

Switching away from external counsel was also highlighted by 4% of those whose teams grew. Clementina Canel of Fepra explains that “the strategic decision was to close some subscriptions and to have in-house contracts, due to the fact that with similar costs the company will have dedicated, specialized lawyers.”

Steady as She Goes

“There have been no changes to the number of my staff for the last nine years. Even the pandemic did not cause any difference in the volume of our staff. This is because of unchanged workload and, in situations where there was some decrease in workload on certain agendas, an organization of the work within the team was carried out,” says Stefan Orosi of Prima Bank Slovensko. Half of GCs report the same stability for the size of their team, despite flagging several reasons for potential fluctuations, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the war in Ukraine.

Some reorganization of internal resources, like in Orosi’s case, is flagged by 34% of GCs whose teams remained constant, in order to cope with fluctuations in work. Another 48% point to increasing external counsel resources. The General Counsel of a global fashion retailer says they have “engaged additional expert external advisors (for example for IP matters).” Eleni Stathaki of Upstream Systems adds: “The size of the team has remained the same for the past three years, even as workload may fluctuate – right now it tends to be heavier than usual. There is a reason why there are few team members: because of the company’s wide geographical footprint, we tend to rely very much on local counsel. So, the answer to addressing the workload is not necessarily having more people in the team – although every extra set of hands counts!” 

Keeping The Team Engaged

Basics Aren’t Much

In terms of the tools used to keep their in-house teams motivated and engaged, only 8% of General Counsel highlight the importance of what Frederick Herzberg would identify as hygiene factors. Among others, Viktor Fonth of HB Reavis points to “high-level working conditions” and cafeteria allowances, with Andras Levai of Market Epito saying: “Based on my experiences, the following tools really matter to engage/motivate colleagues: good working conditions (including remuneration, nice working environment – e.g., office building, IT equipment, etc.).”

Never a Dull Day

The most commonly mentioned focus is on the nature of work they expose their team members to, with 25% of General Counsel stressing, like Dora Szebeni of Vanguards Fashion Group, that they “dedicate interesting and diversified work to each team member.” Diversity is critical in Telelink’s Sylvia Nanovska’s view as well: “What really keeps colleagues in the company is the opportunity to work on different and legally challenging projects. As the team is not divided by competencies, each one of them gets the opportunity to work on various tasks and projects. Diversity in the work tasks is crucial.” Erdelyi Mark of Yettel Hungary too highlights this as his main priority, stressing that “interesting mindful challenges” make his team “feel they can contribute.” And this helps team members grow, according to Zeynep Derman Kucukonder of Coca-Cola: “Anyone, either based on availability, or capability, or interest, has the ability to take on additional responsibilities either in the business or within the legal function by being a part of a project which then helps them grow to be ready for the future.”

Eleni Stathaki of Upstream Systems notes that, in part, this comes naturally with the job: “Upstream is a very dynamic, ever-evolving company, and we joke between ourselves that there is never a dull day in the office. There is always an unexpected request or a new issue where regulations are ambiguous or just very new to sink our teeth in.” However, she acknowledges that might not always be the case as “day-to-day tasks can often be repetitive and not very exciting, legally speaking.” That is why she emphasizes to her team “the motto of ‘no task is too small.’ I encourage the team to take pride in a job well done, even if it is not ground-breaking. I believe that the value of such contributions in the everyday life of the company is immense.”

Tell Me More

The second most-often highlighted tool at their disposal is that of feedback – pointed to by 23% of General Counsel. Clementina Canel of Fepra talks about the importance of “creating an environment where people feel validated and appreciated,” and, towards that, Mary Chaidou of AIG stresses the importance of an “internal annual assessment,” though she also emphasizes it is not enough on its own: “In my view, better results could be achieved if the personal results of the annual assessment are linked to a bonus.” 

Zuzanna Kopaczynska-Grabiec of Wonga.pl says that “regular one-on-one meetings are a good opportunity to give feedback, keep each other in the loop, resolve issues, and help the team grow in their roles.” Nadia Matusikova of RWS Moravia says she uses such meetings to “also inform them on how their contributions help in overall company achievements.”

And these one-on-one sessions are useful both ways, with Kopaczynska-Grabiec saying they can not only “help a manager guide team members’ development” but also listen to and “resolve issues early on, and improve employee retention.” Matusikova too reports she is “listening to their ideas and feedback” and does her “best to turn them into improvements.”

Keep in Touch

“COVID-19 has significantly impacted Poland and disrupted our work and personal life,” explains Marta Ziolkowska-Nasinska of Fererro. “In order to assure engagement and high morale, it was important to take care of the team’s well-being. While working remotely, we had to handle regular tasks, long-term projects, and extraordinary – yet unfamiliar – issues brought by the pandemic. However, it was equally important to stay empathetic to our peers adjusting to the new ways of working and understand that everyone has different challenges in the new reality. We scheduled regular video calls with the team to allow people to see and connect with each other. It was also a good opportunity to publicly recognize one’s effort and success to boost morale, motivation, and sense of belonging.” 

The importance of keeping the team connected is highlighted by 13% of General Counsel with Andrzej Klimek of Idea Getin Leasing saying they “have a whole team meeting on Teams twice a week. There are two internal chats on Teams as well: one is just for professional issues, the other for other issues private as well to common chatting. We work in the 2/3-day mode, so it is expected that employees appear in the office twice a week but by their own decision.” Keeping connected helps people see their contributions, according to Kucukonder: “Being more connected increases opportunities to support their growth and navigate their careers and gives opportunities that give them the feeling of pride by being integrated into business as a strategic business contributor and being a member of one global team.” Ultimately, according to Kopaczynska-Grabiec, it is simply a matter of nurturing bonds within the team “as close cooperation between team members gives the opportunity to maintain the commitment of the whole team.”

Keep Learning

Alex Florescu of Nepi RockCastle points to corporate events and training as the main tool in his arsenal. Learning and development in some form is highlighted by 13% of General Counsel as a motivational retention tool. 

Stathaki says they have the dual benefit of not just keeping team members motivated but also gaining “fresh insights and keep up with the trends in the legal field,” and Wioletta Kaloska of Symfonia explains that it is particularly useful because it “assures colleagues that the company wants them to grow.”

“We strengthened training opportunities for our employees by launching a new internal certifications program, a specially-prepared training program for employees,” illustrates Adam Brzezinski of MoneyGram. “From Warsaw, we are hosting a Global Lunch & Learn Initiative – an informal meeting opportunity to collaborate and learn, and drive personal, team, and business development for all MoneyGram International employees. We also help our employees grow by attending our Supervisor Academy.”

Breathing Down Their Neck?

“I noticed that over the years, the attitude towards tasks and individual participation in an employer’s business, in general, has changed in favor of greater personal freedom,” argues Stefan Orosi of Prima Bank Slovensko. That might explain why the importance of offering independence is highlighted by 13% of General Counsel. “I am offering team members more active roles in some internal projects but let them be responsible for their parts,” Matusikova says, with Ingo Steinwender of CA Immobilien adding: “I give them flexibility and self-responsibility to the greatest extent possible. We avoid written reporting unless absolutely necessary for group purposes, but try to talk to each other a lot.”

The Soft Touch

“Motivation always starts with recognition of the human side of my colleagues so if I know them well, I am able to influence their focus on targets and tasks to do,” explains Zita Toth of Primaenergia. “Sometimes it is enough to listen to their problems during work and somehow softly direct them not to lose focus. In other cases, when this soft power does not work, a direct statement is needed from my side: please do not miss the deadline as it is crucial. But when you work with people, you need to find the proper way to address each of them in order to make sure that your tasks would be completed with their help. I am working mainly with peers so I cannot simply instruct them, therefore I usually use my soft power to influence them to move forward.”

This Article was originally published in Issue 9.9 of the CEE Legal Matters Magazine. If you would like to receive a hard copy of the magazine, you can subscribe here. 

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