What are some of the legal problems associated with managing a variety of companies located in a number of domestic and foreign jurisdictions?
The Ancra Group is a diversified portfolio of manufacturing and manufacturing services businesses located in North and South America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. We have one company attorney (me) responsible for ensuring each of those businesses receives timely, calibrated, and relevant counsel appropriate to their jurisdiction and business. One size definitely doesn’t fit all, though we still try to gain efficiencies with smart templates that can serve as a good starting point for a number of transactions and allow for customization as appropriate.
Because of the group’s diversity and different locations, I typically need to cycle through a series of questions to determine what support is necessary for a given matter.
Is this a legal problem, or just a communication issue?
What is at stake (money, time, reputation, quality, and so forth)?
Is this something I can/should counsel on, or do I need to marshal additional resources?
This decision tree typically covers most issues, and in the event we do need additional resources, we have good relationships in place for the vast majority of subject matter areas and geographies. Having relationships established before the legal need arises, and ensuring outside attorneys understand your businesses and know the players before they are needed, will mean more nuanced and targeted counsel, saving both time and money. Intimate business knowledge on my part also helps calibrate advice and prevents turning molehills into mountains (and the opposite).
Another key in counseling global operations is distinguishing goals from tactics. Very often, you’ll need to do things a bit differently in different jurisdictions and situations to get the same outcome you would have wanted somewhere else. Cultures, legal codes, and business norms vary, and understanding those differences (or at least having your antennae up for them) goes a long way in preventing situations where you’ll feel you’ve solved a problem right until it shows you how wrong you were. Ask questions and be curious — you can never do that enough as a global business lawyer.
What are some unique aspects of global compliance that your industry sector must address?
This varies from year to year and place to place. Our businesses are particularly attuned to global trade compliance (particularly in the current environment), engagement of third parties to ensure our standards and norms shine through to our customers, and staying abreast of ever-changing privacy and labeling requirements. Our business structure (a large number of relatively autonomous businesses operating with a common set of corporate services and resources available to them) creates complexity in implementing solutions for regulations such as GDPR or the new California labeling requirements, for example.
What are some ideas you might offer for initiatives that would help address the legal profession’s diversity issues?
As someone who grew up in a small town in west Michigan, I know too well how much many people misunderstand the word “diversity” and the value it can bring to an organization — and those concepts can only get more muddled when people try to talk across cultures around the world within a global business.
In leading my previous company’s legal department diversity and inclusion initiative, we tried to focus on a couple of things. First, we worked to get everyone to recognize how the market inefficiencies created by unconscious bias can affect company value. The lightbulb often turns on when people see a comparison of James’ and Jamal’s, or James’ and Judy’s job offer outcomes, given identical resumes.
Once it’s understood that the human brain is unintentionally nudging you toward suboptimal choices in how you live and work, it’s easier for people to accept new processes and ways to break through, make those choices a bit more conscious, and capture value that others are missing.
I’ve also seen many situations in life (as I’m sure most have) of white males in leadership roles brushing aside such ideas as “not important” or denying they’ve benefitted from that unconscious bias. It takes a certain amount of self-confidence to accept without guilt that you’ve been on the receiving end of white privilege, and then take the next step of trying to create a real meritocracy for the next generation.
Any initiative that starts by (even subtly) creating enemies and victims will fail for this reason. The reality is that the legal profession in the U.S. has historically been male and white, and that group needs to shift its mentality to recognize why it is in their interest to diversify before efforts will truly take hold.
Starting with small steps can yield effective results. At a previous company, for example, we created a calendar that overlaid each team member’s working, commuting, sleeping, and leisure hours with those of others to make it easier to schedule global meetings, as well as helping headquarters be more aware of differing individual needs. Our result was a bit more alignment in planning and executing a variety of matters thanks to an increased awareness of how colleagues were affected by such actions.
The calendar also sent a message to our employees around the globe that we were all in this together, and we want everyone treated fairly in how we work. The calendar wasn’t rocket science, but by building those foundations of “get everyone working together and buying in to the idea that we can be smarter at how we do so” through inclusion, we started to build momentum toward larger changes.
Ultimately – if you want to hire and retain a diverse workforce, you need to have an inclusive culture where people who work, think, and live differently can all feel comfortable. Humans aren’t one-size-fits-all, and corporate culture needs to accommodate that to avoid being limited to a shallow corner of the talent pool.