Laws in Translation

Nike’s general counsel, Hilary Krane, connects a global network of lawyers

The word “swoosh” can evoke the sound of an object whizzing through the air or the swish of a sinking basketball in a net. It’s an onomatopoeic word that doesn’t translate from English well, but the Nike swoosh, one of the world’s most recognizable logos, does. It’s part of Hilary Krane’s job to ensure that, like the emblem, Nike’s legal needs and goals translate internationally. Krane is Nike’s executive vice president, chief administrative officer, and general counsel, and one of her top priorities since she was appointed in 2010 has been to connect Nike’s international cast of lawyers to one another. She knows that it’s crucial to build a team that sees itself as exactly that: one united team working toward the same victory.

It’s an idea that’s easier to instill at Nike than it would be in organizations without a team-focused culture. The company has a set of maxims and a mission that most of its employees can and do quote with ease. Part of that mission is, “If you have a body, you are an athlete,” and one maxim reads, “We are on the offense. Always.” If athletics are the archetype of teamwork, then Nike, one of the largest athletic companies in the world, is one of the clearest embodiments of this idea outside of professional sports teams.

Krane took over as general counsel just before Nike’s growth spiked between 2011 and 2013. Nike revenues increased by nearly 26 percent, from $20.1 billion to $25.3 billion, in that two-year period. In its corporate overview, Nike says it expects to deliver $30 billion of annual revenue by fiscal year 2015. It was obvious to Krane that this trajectory, coupled with projected increases in technology-enabled globalization, demanded an integrated legal strategy.

Another of Nike’s maxims, “It is our nature to innovate,” translates to Krane’s team as, “Identify what can be protected, what should be, and how those protections can be applied globally.” Nike employees are constantly developing new products with the insights provided by professional athletes. Her lawyers must devise methods to protect these innovations across many departments. This challenge is an uphill climb in just one country, under one set of intellectual property standards. In 170 countries, it’s climbing a mountain that’s constantly trying to reinvent its size, shape, and composition. “Our level of innovation is what drives the business,” says Krane. “If we fail to protect that, then we endanger the business.” Nike is the most imitated brand in the world; its designs are stolen, and its products counterfeited. It follows that the legal department’s central focus is intellectual property. Nike’s lawyers have to monitor those problems and enforce rights in every country in which its products are sold—and that’s most of them.

When Krane came to the department five years ago, she was fortunate to inherit a large group populated by a number of experienced, talented lawyers. Since then, she’s worked with departments outside of her own to bring legal to the forefront of corporate strategic planning. She wants Nike’s lawyers to be part of the company’s overall strategy rather than just its risk managers. To achieve that, Nike lawyers around the world now regularly check in with one another, and there are more of them in each country’s headquarters to better cover all of the company’s needs.

For Nike, having an internationally in-sync department makes its lawyers strategists who both understand business goals and provide technical legal advice. “It’s fairly easy to do one of those things; doing both simultaneously is harder,” Krane says.

An innovative, team-focused culture is a good foundation, but integrating a global department isn’t without challenges, like working across time zones or the myopia lawyers must fight to think outside of their physical offices and view the company as a whole. Krane enables this by reminding the lawyers that Nike—the brand and entire company—is their client. “Lawyers are trained to fiercely represent their clients,” she says. “I have to help them understand that the global organization is as much their client as any territory. I have to help them think as enterprise leaders.”

Krane has always encouraged her people to challenge her and one another to reach the best solutions, but the way people practice law and work together are culturally influenced and diverse. “You can miss key clues if you don’t know that,” she adds. “You have to be mindful not just of your project, but of how you operate and how you can build a multicultural skill set.” Neither Krane nor Nike require a multicultural training course for lawyers, and Krane prefers it that way. The cultural awareness her team learns is almost all experiential, which is similar to the way that most lawyers learn the profession when they start practicing. Nike has expectations and outlines ways to meet them. People are encouraged to access resources, such as speaker panels, but the best way will always be to witness multicultural approaches and behaviors firsthand. “We do some book learning,” Krane says, “but the book pales in comparison to experience.”

“There is no finish line,” reads another Nike maxim. New technologies are being implemented at Nike to support instant, consistent communication. Krane’s department is creating standardized billing and record management procedures that will apply in every country. When the standardized procedures and new technology are used together, the legal department will grow in efficiency as it has in size.

The last five years have taught Krane a number of lessons about leadership as well as integration and multicultural awareness, but she says the first thing executives need to keep in mind is fairly simple. “They have to have well-honed listening skills,” she says. “Any collaboration fails if people are so interested in their own point of view that they can’t make space to process what others are saying.” It isn’t about just being a lawyer or even a leader—it’s about being a conversationalist. Insight is driven by understanding, and leadership is best carried out through open communication and persuasion.

Most of Nike’s employees have a deep love of athletics, and many are former athletes. The expectations of working on a team come naturally to them, and it makes them more effective. As long as that remains true, and Krane and other company leaders continue to be conversationalists, she knows that Nike is on track to succeed. The projected $30 billion Nike says it plans to post in 2015 isn’t a finish line—it’s a great start.