Over the past year, ice cream has been the bane of Unilever’s life.

The Anglo-Dutch consumer products group is being investigated by the Competition Commission over its alleged monopoly of the UK’s £600m impulse buy ice cream market.

In July last year, the Competition Commission opened a debate on Unilever’s UK subsidiary Birds Eye Wall’s demands that retailers do not stock rival products in the same freezer as Birds Eye Wall’s brands.

More recently, Unilever became the subject of intense press speculation over reports that it is considering buying US-based ice cream maker Ben & Jerry’s Homemade.

And the company added fuel to the fire last month when it filed with US regulators to sell upto $3bn (£1.83bn) in guaranteed debt securities, a percentage of which will be used to purchase other companies.

Unilever is acquisitive by nature and last year made a number of significant purchases worldwide, including the French-based company Amora Maille for £460m.

Much of the corporate work surrounding these acquisitions is handled in-house.

Stephen Williams, general counsel and joint company secretary at Unilever’s London office, says: “When we do big deals we normally assemble a team which will consist of someone from the centre [the London and Rotterdam offices], one of our local lawyers, and maybe outside help locally if we need it.”

The in-house team also houses a large number of intellectual property lawyers and marketing specialists and a number of patent agents, owing to the nature of Unilever’s heavily branded consumer business.

Although Williams admits that the group farms out between 60-70 per cent of its legal work to external advisers, he says that the company is more than adequately supplied with in-house lawyers in each of its major jurisdictions.

He says: “They are either in the head offices in London and Rotterdam where there are very large concentrations of lawyers, or they are in our other national head offices in what we call our ‘national management’.”

For example, the group – which houses over 300 subsidiaries worldwide – has 12 lawyers in the German office, 8-9 lawyers in Italy and the same in France, 12-15 in Brazil and 55 lawyers in the US.

While Williams jointly heads the legal department with his Dutch counterpart Jos Westerburgen, who is joint company secretary and head of tax, lawyers in each of the jurisdictions are responsible for choosing the local firms they advise.

But he says: “Conflicts do arise and then we get involved, saying who they should use and often that can mean a change of attorney.”

He says that all the in-house teams have a long relationship with each of the firms they use.

And he is adamant that these relationships will not fall victim to law firm’s current trend to globalise.

Williams says: “We have been globalising since before the word was coined. We have a practice of trying to get the best local lawyers to give the best legal advice.

“If you have a firm that is thinking of globalising and Unilever is the kind of company where they can knock on the door and say ‘we can give you an all-out service horizon to horizon’, my answer is ‘thanks, but no thanks’.”

He adds: “What I want is local excellence. If you are excellent then I might use you but I am not interested in a second rate, second division tie-up around the world.”
Stephen Williams
Head of legal, general counsel and joint company secretary

Organisation Unilever
Sector Consumer products
FTSE 100 ranking 23
Market capitalistion £13bn
Employees 18,000 in the UK, 270,000 worldwide
Legal function 250 lawyers
Head of legal Stephen Williams, general counsel and joint company secretary
Reporting to Niall Fitzgerald (UK) Antony Burgmans (The Netherlands)
Main location for lawyers London and Rotterdam
Main law firms Slaughter and May (UK), De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek (The Netherlands), Cravath Swaine & Moore (US), Rowe & Maw (property), Beachcroft Wansbroughs (litigation)