Legal work almost always touches lives, but it usually does so indirectly. But some attorneys work in industries that have an immediate impact on day-to-day lives: offering advice to save for retirement; determining how companies should write their health-care plans; structuring employee compensation. The lawyers at Aon Hewitt, which provides human resources solutions and consulting services to more than 20,000 companies around the world, fall into this category.
“That’s what makes this place so darn exciting,” says Darren Zeidel, global chief counsel at Aon Hewitt. “We’re at the epicenter of so many things that really matter to people’s lives. Our clients depend on us to be future thought leaders. It won’t work for us to tell them something they already know.
“So we invest heavily in trying to shape the markets we’re in,” he continues. “We work closely with our clients to see the challenges they face or may soon face. And we have lots of subject matter experts. There is so much depth throughout the company. Our department heads are knowledgeable and well connected in their practice areas. They are the people—or regularly talk to the people—who anticipate what’s coming next.”
At Aon Hewitt, Zeidel says, lawyers are not thought of as overhead, but as a crucial business partner. “Lawyers are represented at every level: on the CEO’s leadership team and in every division. The degree of penetration and embeddedness is really remarkable,” he explains.
This is especially impressive given the geographic spread of the Aon Hewitt legal team. Of the seventy legal professionals working in seven countries, Zeidel has five direct reports: the chief counsels for Asia Pacific; India; and Europe, the Middle East, and Africa; in addition to two senior leaders in the United States. One senior leader oversees the transactional side of the business, and the other is responsible for regulatory law.
The international nature of his work isn’t a new feeling for Zeidel. After earning his law degree at McGill University in Quebec, the Canadian native realized he couldn’t stay in his home country. “Given the type of law I wanted to practice, and the desire to participate in the most significant deals out there, I needed to work at a major New York law firm,” Zeidel says. “Like the song says, “If (he could) make it there, (he could) make it anywhere.”
Zeidel joined Skadden Arps’s New York office in its corporate rotation, working in both finance and mergers and acquisitions. Unlike some firms, where associates assist many partners, he worked with the same group representing several clients in the aerospace industry.
During his five years at the firm, Zeidel worked on the attempted mergers of Honeywell and General Electric, and US Airways and United Airlines. “Though neither of those deals went through, they were incredible learning experiences,”
In 2003, Zeidel accepted an offer to join one of Honeywell Aerospace’s operating companies in Arizona as general counsel. “Honeywell is such a great company, and this was a billion-dollar subsidiary. It seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity, and I was ready to leave New York.”
While there, he was given the chance to take executive education courses at Harvard Business School, including the Program for Leadership Development. “I never thought of myself as just a lawyer,” he says. “I always believed I could contribute on the business side, too. In addition to further developing my business acumen, it was great to spend time with seasoned executives from all over the globe.”
“I don’t want to be just a lawyer; I always believed I could contribute on the business side, too.”
He then moved to UOP, a Honeywell subsidiary, where he oversaw a team of twenty-five. When he learned about the opportunity at Aon Hewitt, he couldn’t resist. “It is significantly bigger than UOP and at the forefront of so many important issues. I thought it would be exciting, which has proven to be the case,” he explains.
In addition to working through hot-button topics, Zeidel says his team spends considerable time on complex contracts. “This is a high-volume business with a lot of transactions,” he says. “Sophisticated contracting is fundamental to what we do. Some contracts cover multiple jurisdictions, and we need to ensure they are ‘fit for purpose’ in all applicable markets.
“We are continuously trying to improve our templates and make sure our internal colleagues understand why we push for some things and not others,” he adds. “We’re in a highly fluid and regulated environment, so our contracts have to be revisited constantly.”
Part of what makes that kind of work run smoothly is the respect Aon Hewitt has for its in-house attorneys. “Everyone here wants legal’s input. It’s rather unique for an in-house department, and it’s this way because the lawyers here earned it,” he explains. “But it’s an ongoing process. We need to continue to show we bring value and solutions. Once you’ve established that kind of credibility and track record, the business units want to include you.
“This doesn’t just apply to new products or services,” he adds. “It also applies to new geographic markets. We need to make sure our business units understand all the implications involved when entering a new market. It is legal’s job to stay a step ahead by thoroughly researching the potential risks and laws of relevant jurisdictions.”
That process is made easier through the frequent use of videoconferencing. Technology is helpful, but it’s the strong management style that keeps Aon Hewitt’s legal function running smoothly. “I’ve told the legal staff that they should not let time zones, geography, or cultural differences stand in their way,” Zeidel says. “We are all on the same team. Here again, the company is a trendsetter. We don’t let one’s location create limits or problems; instead, we see it as providing opportunities.”