Who is essential?

One of the urgent issues arising during the early days of the pandemic was the definition of an “essential worker.” The rulings on this varied widely from state to state. Massage therapists were considered essential in the state of Washington but not in California. 

With tens of thousands of employees in the U.S. working in hundreds of different roles, Koch needed to make sure the best knowledge was leveraged when making decisions regarding many COVID-related issues, including the definition of an “essential worker.” 

“In the past,” said Koch’s general counsel, Ray Geoffroy, “we might have had seven different lawyers' opinions about a question like that because we had seven different legal teams with seven different legal Visions among our businesses and capabilities. Each legal team was a closed system, operating separately from the other legal teams. Knowledge sharing was limited and each team had its own Vision and priorities.”

Two years ago, the general counsels of each of the Koch companies worked together and developed a single, shared legal Vision for all Koch companies. “We use the phrase ‘borderless capability,’ which is a great description of the way we operate now. We’ve become more cohesive as a capability and much better at applying comparative advantage and aligning knowledge and decision rights with incentives,” Geoffroy said. “Our results have improved and cycle times are faster, too.” 

In keeping with that way of thinking, Geoffroy made one attorney responsible for “owning” the issue of essential workers and then sharing that knowledge throughout the organization. The legal department also collaborated with several other Koch capabilities to develop and implement recommendations with respect to essential workers. Since then, individual owners have been assigned to areas such as human resources, trademarks, patents and contracts.

Another big change was the effort to streamline the number of external law firms being used. “We went from more than 700 firms to a panel of 14 preferred partners who could work with us in a mutually beneficial manner,” Geoffroy said. “That reduced friction and led to much lower transaction costs because we could negotiate volume discounts. Our goal is for 80% of our outside legal costs to run through these preferred partners.”

flower chart

The legal tech portfolio.

The legal team favors partners who are willing to disrupt the traditional law service model in ways which are mutually beneficial to the Koch legal capability and its preferred partners. Having a smaller panel offered the legal team the opportunity to inform its preferred partners what is valuable to Koch, with a strong emphasis on creative thinking and experimentation. The preferred partners have been encouraged to experiment with alternative fee arrangements and creative legal service delivery models to reduce costs and increase the speed of legal services.
Using the word “transformation” when talking about a legal capability may seem unlikely, but Geoffroy insists that Koch’s legal team is embracing change in other big ways — including the use of technology. 

“There has always been a lot of legal work that was rote in nature, such as filing of routine registrations and licenses with government authorities. We now have bots that can do that. They can also track down information for patents and trademarks, and eliminate much of the repetitive work we used to do for due diligence and contract reviews.

“We process at least 10,000 nondisclosure agreements a year. Being able to automate much of that work makes life more enjoyable for our team.”

Quotation Mark

“Legal spend has decreased 35% in the past six years despite increasing investment and acquisition activity.”

Ray Geoffroy

Personal Transformation

Ray Geoffroy points to Christine Cason, an associate general counsel for KCPS, as an example of the kind of self-actualization and continuous transformation that often happens at Koch. “The transformation of Christine’s role was an experiment,” Geoffroy said, “and it was her success in a new kind of role that led to similar changes across our entire capability.”

Inline Captioned Image

Cason is the Koch attorney leading the legal team responsible for trademarks, copyrights and domain names. When she started with GP in 2002 as the division counsel for its Dixie business, the norm was for each business to handle its own trademark issues separately. “A paralegal and I handled as much of Dixie’s trademark and copyright legal matters as possible in-house,” Cason said. 

As more and more work came in, Cason helped to form the trademark group within GP’s intellectual property team. “Around 2006, we realized we could do this work in-house for all of GP, not just Dixie and the Consumer Products business, so my role expanded and I began supporting all other GP businesses as well.” The trademark and copyright team grew, hiring another attorney and more paralegals. 

Knowledge sharing is as important to Koch’s legal capability as it is to any other Koch capability or business. But as Cason soon realized, “we still weren’t working as a team across all of Koch. We had great relationships and productive knowledge sharing with other legal teams, but each company tended to handle its work separately.”
That was the situation in 2018 when Tye Darland, Georgia-Pacific’s general counsel, and Ray Geoffroy, general counsel for Koch Industries, announced an experiment involving combined legal teams from KII and GP. Their concept was to establish a team based on comparative advantage rather than business unit and then ask it to support all Koch companies. “They wanted to see what would happen if we had a ‘borderless’ team for trademarks,” Cason said. “We were one of the first groups, along with real estate, to try this.”

After sorting through all the different docketing systems used to track trademarks and copyrights, the team consolidated everything onto a single system and moved all paper files into an online filing system. “That was a painful process,” Cason admitted. “It meant scanning thousands of files and transferring them online. But the timing was excellent because when COVID hit and we all had to work remotely, everything we needed was accessible online.”

Bottom line: The experiment is no longer an experiment.

Based on Cason’s success, other specialists within the KCPS Legal Capability are following the same model. Meanwhile, Cason’s role expanded to include not only more Koch companies, but also providing general counsel support to Koch Global Services Group, which has opened up yet another new range of experiences and challenges.

“I’ve now lost count of how many times my role has transformed,” Cason said, “but each time has been tremendously rewarding. I enjoy being a lifelong learner, I enjoy tackling something new. And I’ve discovered I enjoy leading teams.

“There is so much opportunity here at Koch that it’s easy to think beyond your original area of responsibility. When I run into my law school classmates they are amazed I’ve been with the same company this long. 

“But then I tell them: It’s the same company, but it’s not the same job.”