Five questions with George Miller senior vice president, general counsel and secretary, Sigma-Aldrich.

Since 2009, George Miller has directed the legal, intellectual property, ethics and compliance, risk management, environmental, health and safety, sustainability and government relations functions at global life sciences firm Sigma-Aldrich. Prior to joining Sigma-Aldrich he held a number of senior legal positions at pharmaceutical and healthcare giant Novartis, including deputy general counsel and head of group legal based in Basel, Switzerland; executive vice president and general counsel, Americas; and general counsel, Japan. He spoke to deputy editor Aarti Maharaj about the challenges of managing a legal department.

1. What are some of the latest trends in law department management?

Probably the most important trend, and one that has been building for some time now, is the requirement of ‘doing more with less’.

For most of us, the ‘less’ really is in relative terms, not nominal. The takeaway is that CEOs are looking for their general counsel to provide the same or better support going forward at a lower cost in terms of percentage sales. This is forcing in-house legal departments to look to technology as an enabler of legal services, especially high-volume and lower-value-added legal services; to understand the business deeply, especially trends that change the legal risk profile, so internal resources can be better planned; and to partner with outside counsel and non-traditional legal service providers in order to improve service attributes at a total cost that represents better value.

Another trend that I see for the modern general counsel is ‘value’ – preserving value by providing cost-effective support to the business in the management of legal risk and by finding ways to add value to the business through intelligent and innovative application of law and regulation to the opportunities presented in the business arena. In-house departments that succeed on the value proposition will find their influence expanding significantly – and a law department that can meet the value challenge by successfully doing more with less will be a true champion.

2. You worked in Japan, then Switzerland – how would you describe your experiences in these overseas law departments? What did you learn?

While there were some parallels, the two situations were dramatically different. When I joined FedEx in its new Tokyo regional office, I was the first lawyer for the company that was physically located in Asia and only the second lawyer posted overseas. I had to do the basics – create a department, which included everything from filing systems to contract management systems, and train the local workforce on issues derived from US law that necessarily applied globally. At the same time, given the US penchant for extra-territorial application of its law, I was tasked with training counterparts in the US on a multitude of civil law systems to avoid decisions coming out of FedEx’s Memphis corporate HQ that would have very unfortunate effects on my clients.

If that wasn’t enough of a challenge, FedEx had, just prior to my arrival, closed the acquisition of the Flying Tigers airline. FedEx really had no presence in Asia prior to that and did not understand the market or the cultures; Flying Tigers, on the other hand, had expansive knowledge of the Asian market, and most of the senior management that I dealt with locally were from that company. I soon learned that the FedEx professionals did not understand the Flying Tigers’ business, and the FedEx US team did not understand Asia. I ended up spending a massive amount of time as an interpreter, most of the time on business issues that had nothing to do with legal risk.

In Switzerland I was asked to manage the global legal function of Novartis, a pharmaceutical and healthcare multinational. Much to my surprise, when I arrived in Basel, I learned there was no function. Sure, there were 100 lawyers, but none of them reported to anyone functionally outside of the limited business they served. So, as with my FedEx experience, I had to put in place the basics – only on a much larger scale, as we had lawyers in 25 countries.

3. In your view, what are some things that do not work when trying to create a successful law department?

For most global companies, while a centralized legal function, because of its scale, has the best chance of succeeding in doing more with less, it simply cannot meet the value challenge. Lawyers have to be embedded in the business – there is no other way to really understand the business and gain credibility with the management team. If 65 percent of the business is outside the US, that’s where the lawyers need to be as well.

Irrespective of the form of organization (centralized versus decentralized), lawyers who sit in their offices waiting for clients to come to them are dead wood, in my estimation. They help with neither of the challenges mentioned earlier.

Hiring the right lawyer is difficult, and doubly so when you are trying to support a management team that has no experience with lawyers other than fleeting discussions with outside counsel whenever a problem arises. From a political perspective, you have to involve a couple of key business managers – the lawyer will be sitting as a colleague on the business unit management team, after all – but you have to make it clear that you, as the general counsel, know which lawyer has the requisite skills and experience. All you are looking for from the business is whether the chemistry is right.

4. What makes a successful in-house career? Do you think promotions lead to success or making a switch to another company?

This is a tough question to answer given that success is such a personal and subjective standard. No one wants to lose talented lawyers to another organization simply because you have run out of challenges for them. At Novartis, we developed programs that followed two tracks: one for lawyers who wanted to manage other lawyers, and a second path for lawyers who loved to practice law but didn’t really want to be managers, or perhaps didn’t have the right personal attributes to succeed as managers. With these two tracks, a law department can offer meaningful development opportunities that recognize skills and contributions equally – and believe me, that can help one’s morale immensely.

5. How can a legal department get the most out of its interns?

Where my experience with interns has been at its most positive, we took the time to find the candidates who were most motivated to work with us and had a background or interest in the projects we wanted them to work on. Developing the projects and making sure the in-house ‘mentor’ was sufficiently trained and focused on getting the most out of the interns was key to the success of the program. Expectation management is also a vital – one cannot expect an intern to perform at the level of a five-year lawyer. On the other hand, one should not compromise on a high level of performance – you just need to be certain the capabilities of the intern are understood and match the task at hand. I am a firm believer in molding professionals to become something better, especially young, ambitious minds.