A snug fit at Levi's

Scott Squillace

Scott Squillace, chief European counsel for US clothing giant Levi Strauss & Co, says there is one main reason why he decided to become in-house counsel: "What I liked doing most was counselling. In private practice you counsel, then leave. I wanted to get closer to helping influence the decision making process."

After graduating in law at Washington's Catholic University of America and furthering his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, he gained sound international experience with New York-based law firm Skadden Arps. When the call to in-house practice came in 1993, he joined the European legal team of San Francisco-based Levi Strauss & Co and has since been promoted to department head.

Squillace says the company, which has a worldwide turnover of nearly US$7bn, has a strong focus on employee development. "Employees are given responsibility and decision making is pushed down to the most appropriate level," he says. Teamwork is also encouraged. "We work a lot in cross-functional teams. This puts some people off as it is cumbersome but you do make better decisions," explains Squillace.

Around 400 employees work in the Brussels office, which administers the company's affairs for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Squillace works with an assistant solicitor and several support staff while another lawyer works on intellectual property investigations, mainly involving counterfeits, and reports directly to the head of the investigations and brand protection team in the US.

"We do not have many transactions but we spend considerable time in commercial man- agement meetings to spot legal issues and give advice," says Squillace. "Lawyers here are viewed as another good mind at the table."

He also ensures the prompt delivery of legal services by external counsel. In material litigation matters he discusses strategies with external counsel and may review pleadings, but adds: "We do a lot of counselling with management to avoid litigation."

His choice of external counsel is well measured. "We look for individuals in firms with good judgement about how to deliver legal services. We want someone who can be the local general counsel, the first port of call for the country manager, so we are less interested in large firms for the 'brand name'. Our experience is that there are widely different standards between offices, not just in technical matters but in service too.

"We want the counsel to be proactive and be interested in building a relationship, people who will refer something to us or to head office if they judge it important to do so."

The company does not use one firm across many countries. "This keeps counsel competitive, although we are reluctant to use new people as it is enormously time consuming to integrate them," explains Squillace.

"We usually pay hourly rates on the kind of work we do, but we do not pay premiums and from some counsel expect the best deal they are giving their best clients, which could be, say, 10 per cent off hourly rates."

The company organised a two-day conference in Belgium for its lead outside counsel from each country last September. At the event general counsel Albert Moreno, from the San Francisco headquarters, updated lawyers on Levi Strauss's business.

"We pay our lawyers' expenses for the conference but they do not charge for their time," says Squillace.

"It is an opportunity for us all to invest in the relationship and for them to get to know each other so they can talk about similar cases. There is a lot of collective learning in this group and we can all talk about forthcoming issues like the Internet."

Since becoming regional legal head his role has changed: "There is a lot more accountability and responsibility and involvement with senior management. I spend more time liaising with the head office legal department and on global legal issues like the Internet."

But Levi Strauss has reinforced Squillace's preference for working in-house. "In-house, there is less depth but more breadth in your work and there are more opportunities to grow and learn – for instance, about matters like leadership – whereas in a law firm the development is more technically orientated," he says.

Squillace is a founding member of the European chapter of the American Corporate Counsel Association, the 10,500-member Washington DC-based organisation which represents in-house counsel in the US. Last December he became chapter president.

He says he has three goals for his presidency: "First, to increase membership and provide greater service in the UK, France and Belgium. Second, to do a strategic business plan for the future and develop its infrastructure, and third, to become more actively involved in lobbying on the issue of the lack of privilege for in-house counsel in competition cases in the EU."