At Coca-Cola, GC Wants ‘Cult’ Devotion from Outside Counsel

Photographer: Carla Gottgens/Bloomberg

For a study in contrasts, take a look at the corporate legal departments at Coca-Cola and UPS.

UPS keeps fewer than 100 in-house lawyers despite a market capitalization of about $93 billion. The company’s general counsel Norman Brothers Jr. said he likes the flexibility of outsourcing legal work and uses about 26 different outside law firms.

Meanwhile, Coca-Cola, with a market capitalization of $193 billion, employs more than 300 in-house lawyers who manage about 60 percent of its legal work internally, according to Ben Garren, general counsel for North America at Coca-Cola. He estimated the percentage to be higher than the average corporation.

Garren and Brothers recently spoke at “Beyond the Billable Hour,” sponsored by Bloomberg Law, and what united them was an emphasis on lawyers who understand their company’s business.

Garren recommended law firms follow the example of management consulting firms and devote non-billable hours to learning about the business – for instance, by touring a Coke bottling plant or riding along on a UPS delivery truck – sometimes even before pitching the company as a prospective client.

“We’re very cult-like at the Coca-Cola Company,” Garren said at the seminar.

Every person and segment of the company including the in-house legal department should be focused on helping to sell its products, he said and added, “We want our law firms to feel that as well.”

Indeed, Jeffrey Cashdan, another panelist and a partner at King & Spalding who represents Coca-Cola, said he has banned competitors’ drinks from his home.

“I’m all-in for my client,” he said.

For firms looking to expand an existing relationship with a corporate client, Brothers added, the outside counsel should focus on high quality day-to-day work with the company’s line lawyers on the matters that they’re working rather than “wining and dining” the company’s general counsel.