When Leggett & Platt initially hired Jennifer Coleman as a litigation attorney in 2006, the company knew that she would be bringing several important lessons with her from private practice: responding to clients promptly, spotting issues as early as possible, and providing high-quality guidance in plain language, among others.
Now, as deputy general counsel and chief litigation counsel, those same priorities have helped make Leggett & Platt’s legal department integral to the success of its worldwide operations.
To this day, Coleman maintains an open-door policy that enables the department to act as a partner in clients’ business activities. This helps stave off the common corporate symptom of business units avoiding legal advice whenever possible in order to escape the inevitable thicket of red tape.
“Remembering that no one enjoys litigation except litigators has helped make a department that was already client-focused into one that is also client-friendly,” Coleman explains. “Rather than looking for reasons to say no, we find solutions to client issues and educate them so it’s less likely they have to come back to us in the future.”
Coleman is also guided by her motto of “no surprises for executives” and uses several different related strategies on a day-to-day basis. One is providing regular updates on all pertinent issues that can impact how a pending matter is evaluated. Specifically, Coleman develops “decision trees” that review outcomes and probabilities for each primary issue, along with its costs and benefits. Another important tool is competitive bidding that includes fee caps for various stages of outsourced legal projects. The combination of these approaches has helped manage expectations and reduce costs.
“We can take some of the mystery out of litigation by keeping management informed at every step and helping them make decisions that are in the best interests of the company,” Coleman says. “That includes managing expenses proactively and not waiting until we find that we’re $1 million over a case’s original fee estimate.”
Leggett & Platt has 130 manufacturing facilities in nineteen countries and, through an active M&A initiative, frequently enters into joint ventures with established local enterprises in order to learn about new geographic regions and lines of business. To help mitigate overall risk and to stay compliant with foreign regulations (as well as US local, state, and federal requirements), Coleman and the legal department must quickly learn local customs and practices.
For example, Chinese culture is highly sensitive to shame and disgrace. Therefore, interviews and disciplinary actions have to be tailored to that environment. Litigation decisions must also be viewed differently because lawsuits are more common in the United States in comparison to China and many other parts of the world.
The company’s global reach, which results in thousands of different residential, commercial, industrial, and specialized products, presents the legal department with additional challenges. Not only does each product potentially have its own set of specific jurisdictional regulations, but this can also require legal guidance on elements such as package labeling, safety warnings, and even consumer preferences.
“Remembering that no one enjoys litigation except litigators has helped make a department that was already client-focused into one that is also client-friendly.”
Coleman relies on foreign firms to address local laws and regulations, but she also stresses the importance of the legal department’s close relationship with business teams in addressing such specific issues.
“Open communication with clients, discussing new products in development, and changes to current product offerings are critical,” she says. “That’s why we’re always available to answer questions, concerns, or to respond to an idea that’s just being considered.”
Many of Leggett’s items are considered component products, but the company is increasing its offerings of finished consumer goods, such as adjustable bed bases and headboards, among others.
As this trend continues, Coleman’s portfolio—and the demand for expertise in requirements for consumer goods—will also increase.
In addition, the legal department is home to the company’s ethics hotline. Handling issues ranging from environmental concerns to allegations of corruption, the hotline provides another resource for Leggett employees to be heard and have concerns promptly addressed. It also enables Coleman and her staff to intervene early, assess claims, and proceed accordingly.
Since the enhanced hotline was implemented in 2014 as part of the company’s ongoing global anti-corruption initiatives, claims and litigation against Leggett have decreased. The hotline is also supplemented by ongoing anti-corruption training presented annually, in part, by hired local counsel in several countries where Leggett has manufacturing sites.
While product lines are updated, regulatory and compliance issues continue to evolve. As Leggett & Platt’s role in the supply chain changes (component versus finished products), Coleman is committed to staying as proactive as possible. “When I started here as a litigation attorney, I would just respond to issues that came across my desk,” she recalls. “Now, I apply everything I’ve learned from past cases to do my job more effectively by getting out in front of issues. I want my guidance to help make sure that we’re never caught off guard.”
Shook, Hardy & Bacon:
Jennifer is extraordinary in her ability to manage complex litigation on a world-wide basis. We are honored to be a part of her outside counsel litigation team.
—Joe Rebein and Laurie Novion