Unilever Italy GC Giulia di Tommaso

Giulia di Tommaso at Unilever Italy epitomises the changing face of Continental in-housers, as companies recognise the strategic value that lawyers can bring

The development of the in-house market in Europe is lagging behind that of the UK’s. While European general counsel are gradually gaining influence, many do not yet have the clout of their Anglo-Saxon counterparts.

But this is changing. A number of Continental in-housers are attempting to lead the way by implementing UK-style procurement processes and learning from their peers in other countries.

One of those is Unilever’s Italian general counsel, Giulia Di Tommaso. Di Tommaso has worked for the consumer goods giant since 2004, when she joined in Brussels. She had previously worked at Italian firm Chiomenti in Brussels and says she was “an EU law animal with a national law background”.

Di Tommaso

“The aim was to reinforce activity around European issues – EU law, competition and so on,” says Di Tommaso of her initial Unilever role, adding that EU is now much less of an issue for her. 

Giulia di Tommaso box

After seven years in Brussels it was time to go back to Italy. Di Tommaso was sent to head up Unilever’s Italian legal function, combining the role of general counsel with that of chief compliance officer. She now leads a relatively small team in the jurisdiction but is part of the business’s European legal function, led from London by general counsel (Europe) James Berkeley.

The Italian lawyers talk regularly to their colleagues in other jurisdictions and Di Tommaso describes Unilever’s legal team as a “truly legal family” that shares a lot of

The five lawyers in Italy are responsible for what Di Tommaso calls a “full menu” of matters including M&A, contracts, competition and, crucially, IP law. Employment law, however, was recently outsourced.

Compliance issues are also becoming more prominent, with white-collar crime and corruption now on most businesses’ agendas, and Di Tommaso has been looking at making sure Unilever is compliant with the anti-corruption law introduced in late 2012.

Di Tommaso says Unilever’s approach to hiring external counsel in Italy has changed recently, with more involvement from the company’s procurement team. This started a couple of years ago and Di Tommaso welcomes the change.

“It gives us the element of objectivity needed to compare [firms],” she says, adding that the procurement team’s view helps her to keep an eye on issues such as fees.

Di Tommaso

Looking for the lone stars

The sheer number of law firms operating in Italy – from the big, internationally focused independents through to tiny boutiques via the local offices of the global players – is a boon for in-housers, says Di Tommaso.

“We try to have a balance of first-tier firms and what I call the unsung heroes of the legal community – those lawyers who are working by themselves,” she explains. 

Younger lawyers branching out on their own are a particular breed Di Tommaso looks for.

Key firms Unilever Italy has worked with in the past include Bonelli Erede Pappalardo and Gianni Origoni Grippo Cappelli & Partners, particularly for litigation. Smaller outfits she points to include competition boutique Dandria, set up in 2011, especially in light of the increased focus on this area.

The other issue Di Tommaso is spending a lot of time dealing with is brand protection and marketing. Unilever owns a number of household names recognised around the world, including several that originated in Italy, such as Cornetto.

“We’ve all grown up with Cornetto,” says Di Tommaso fondly. “That’s Italian culture – a strong Italian identity and brand.”

Unilever operates what she describes as a “shield and sword” approach to brand protection. Di Tommaso says the lawyers are a vital part of this battle.

“There’s a lot of pressure in the marketplace to make claims,” she says. “Legal can get the business to make sure it can support claims and be competitive.”

As the role of lawyers in protecting the brand becomes more important, so Di Tommaso believes the role of in-house lawyers generally is becoming more prominent in Italy.

“Companies have started to realise that it’s crucial to involve the lawyers at board level,” she says. “There’s growing recognition that legal can play a strategic role if it is involved in the decision-making process early enough.”

However, lawyers need to help the development process too, Di Tommaso adds, by coming down from the “ivory tower” and getting involved in the business.

“This is something we like to do – we spend time with the business,” she says, noting that the company should not be thinking of the legal function as one that has nothing to say but “no, no, no”. Lawyers need to take a less risk-averse approach to their company’s strategy.

Di Tommaso says she and her colleagues at Unilever are lucky in that the company is already operating at this level, but believes the broader Italian legal market has some catching up to do.

“Taking a strategic role requires a lot of support from leadership at all levels – they must see lawyers as an investment and not a cost,” she says. “There should be more encouragement for lawyers to be externally focused.”

Others in the market say the development of the in-house scene in Italy is continuing, but it may be some time before all businesses are as proactive as Unilever in their use of lawyers.

Brian Sheridan, general counsel, Sorin Group

I am the luckiest lawyer in Italy. I was hired 10 years ago to establish Sorin’s first legal department and have never looked back, nor elsewhere. I was recommended by the GC of a competitor for my role – which has always stayed with me. I am the only non-Italian GC of a listed company in Italy and this allows me greater freedom than most in shaking the tree of legal services.

Having been hired with a blank sheet of paper to fill I now head up a young and very passionate, team of 14, located around the world and managed remotely. In addition to our role as generalists for all legal aspects of the business (except tax) we lead our company’s compliance and ethics programmes.

The team has won awards in both legal and compliance against bigger and better known brands and legal departments. We try to hire ambitious talents who want proximity to the business side and thrive on seeing the needle move with their involvement.

We do not use panel law firms and overall have reduced by more than 70 per cent our use of external firms in the time I have been here. While a large majority of firms talk about service in their pitches, a tiny minority possess the listening skills required to deliver on the promise. So when we hire a firm, we are really trying to hire a long-term relationship.

Our team is blessed with a senior management team that ‘gets’ what legal and compliance functions can add to the company’s value. Not all our peers are so lucky.