Tea drinkers will be pleased to know consumer giant Unilever has their interests at heart. Not only is tea a drinks category of “key importance” to the company in its drive for product “excellence”, but it is also the subject of considerable research using “computational fluid dynamics” to “investigate the tea infusion process”.

Perfecting the morning cuppa is one of chief aims of this Anglo-Dutch business with global interests stemming from foods to detergents and personal care products.

With worldwide sales worth more than $48bn (£29bn), Unilever is the world’s second-largest consumer business after Phillip Morris.

The company was created in 1929 through the merger of Lever Brothers and Dutch business Margarine Unie. Today, top consumer brands and major investment in research and development have helped turn Unilever into a giant with 300 subsidiaries and stock market listings in London, New York, Amsterdam and Frankfurt.

Stephen Williams, Unilever’s general counsel and joint company secretary, heads the legal team: “We are quintessentially global, with a presence everywhere except Iraq, North Korea and the Antarctic.”

The size and range of the company’s activities necessitates a big legal department, with 240 lawyers and patent agents – lawyers account for 60 per cent of the total – dotted around the globe.

The central legal function is split between the head offices of Uni-lever’s parent companies in London and Rotterdam: Unilever plc, based in London, and Unilever NV.

“Although they’re separate legal entities lashed together by a series of agreements, this creates a single economic enterprise,” says Williams.

Twenty-five lawyers span the London and Rotterdam offices. Then there are 20 in New York, 10 to 20 in other key locations and smaller teams in countries such as South Africa and Pakistan.

The core group function tends to focus on corporate mergers and acquisitions and advising Unilever’s 12 international business groups.

A lot of the legal work focuses on commercial, intellectual property and marketing-related matters. “The law of bringing products to market is central to what we do as a company,” says Williams.

“Legally informing the business is vital. That’s where we add value.”

The legal managers reporting to Williams are: the European general counsel, overseas general counsel, head of trademarks, head of patents, North American general counsel and corporate marketing counsel. Meanwhile, London and Rotterdam each have a commercial law team.

A lot of emphasis is placed on law firms in local jurisdictions that the company has built relationships with over many years.

Centrally, only a handful of international corporate firms are used, and relationships tend to be long-term. “We value continuity and loyalty, as well as expertise,” he says.

There is no formal panel. “We have no problem over what we pay. We believe we get value for money,” he says.

What about using one-stop shop global firms? “We don’t sign up to these. We want law firms, not travel agencies,” Williams says with a wry grin.

“I want lawyers with roots somewhere. We’ve been in some of these countries for up to 70 years, so we know what we’re looking for.”

Stephen Williams
Head of legal, general counsel and joint company secretary

Organisation Unilever
Sector Fast moving consumer goods
FTSE 100 ranking number 11/td>
Market capitalisation c£50bn
Employees 270,000
Legal function Around 240 lawyers and patent agents
Head of legal Stephen Williams, general counsel and joint company secretary
Reporting to Unilever’s two chairmen
Main location for lawyers London, Rotterdam, New York, Paris, Hamburg, Milan, Rome, Brazil, Bombay, Madras
Main law firms Slaughter and May, Cravath Swaine & Moore, De Brauw Blackstone Westbroek, Rowe & Maw (property), Beachcroft Stanleys (litigation)