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Legal Leadership: harnessing GenAI to revolutionise our legal teams

Published: 23 February 2024

Transforming the global legal team, introducing generative AI and being named one of the world’s best in-house lawyers are just some of the milestones that have marked Maria Varsellona’s first two years as Unilever’s chief legal officer and company secretary. In the latest of our interviews with senior leaders, we caught up with her for a full debrief.

Maria Varsellona, Unilever Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary, smiling at the camera

As Chief Legal Officer and Company Secretary, Maria Varsellona leads Unilever’s Legal, Intellectual Property and Business Integrity functions. Here she reflects on some of the key milestones that have defined her first two years at Unilever.

Strategy, innovation and growth

Maria, can you tell us what led to the transformation of the legal team and how it is benefiting the business?

We embarked on our transformation journey to revolutionise the way we deliver legal services to the organisation in an efficient, simplified and digitally enabled way. By doing this, it means we’re better equipped to support the delivery of our Action Plan.

A key aspect of our transformation is the creation of three global Legal Powerhouses in Bangalore, Mexico City and Barcelona. Our Powerhouse teams are equipped with generative AI tools and are made up of lawyers who are responsible for a range of diverse legal tasks. We provide our teams with ongoing global support so that they gain career-defining skills and experience, while the Powerhouses also help us to increase efficiency and streamline our ways of working. If I were a young lawyer, I would love to work there.

Our transformation has also brought us closer to our business colleagues. I strongly believe that in-house lawyers must be business partners, as we are well positioned to help identify opportunities to deliver our Action Plan priorities. For example, we can better support our business group colleagues in driving product superiority by protecting our intellectual property assets and substantiating our product claims.

Group photo of the team at the Bangalore Legal Powerhouse who will leverage GenAI to increase efficiency

Your team transformation and exploration of generative AI earned you a place as one of the Financial Times Top 20 in-house legal leaders. How are you optimising generative AI?

A key enabler of our Action Plan is our digital transformation. For our legal team, I see generative AI as a tool that will allow us to drive this transformation while step-changing our operational effectiveness. We currently use it to conduct research, draft letters and review contracts.

Of course, our lawyers thoroughly review everything generated by generative AI and apply critical judgement, but using this technology clearly reduces the amount of time we spend on these tasks, allowing us to dedicate more time to strategic legal work.

I think an increase in generative AI use is unavoidable, so rather than trying to resist change, we need to look at how we can influence it. And as in-house lawyers, we are in a unique position to be able to do this.

What would you say to people who are worried about the use of generative AI in a legal setting?

I would tell them that although Unilever Legal is seen to be ahead of the curve when it comes to our adoption of generative AI tools, we are very careful. We want to access new tools and embrace new technology, but always balance this with ensuring that they are used wisely and in a way that is rooted in integrity.

My team has created rules, not just for Legal but also for the whole business so that we use new technology, such as AI, in an ethical and responsible way.

Maria Varsellona sitting on a stage as part of a discussion panel with two men and one other woman

How would you describe your leadership style?

I see myself as a fair and inclusive leader. And I believe in meritocracy. I want my team to be excited about what they do and to work well together, because if we’re working well as a team we unlock huge potential.

What attracted you to working at Unilever?

I started my career in private practice in Italy. After training as a solicitor in the UK, I returned to Italy to find that the most interesting legal work was being done in-house, so that is where I decided to focus.

Working at Unilever really appealed to me because I wanted to prove that a business can perform very well and still do something great for the world. I believe that if we have great performance without doing good, we lose. If we do good without great performance, we also lose. I want to demonstrate that doing both is possible.

A picture of the Unilever Mexico Powerhouse team

Looking to the future

What achievement are you most proud of since joining this team?

I think that our use of generative AI is one of the reasons that we are considered to be one of the best in-house legal teams in the world, so I am proud of that.

But I am also proud of our transformation and the creation of the Powerhouses which are already making an enormous difference to both the business and the people that work there.

Finally giving my team space to grow and feel successful is very important to me, so I am also very proud to have helped build the next generation of Unilever legal leaders.

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  • Unilever USA: a presentation for investors presentation PDF | 2MB

Unilever US Deep Dive Webcast

Fabian Garcia

President, Unilever North America

22 March 2021

This presentation may contain forward- looking statements, including 'forward - looking statements' within the meaning of the Unite d States Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Words such as 'will', 'aim', 'expects', 'anticipates', 'intends', 'looks', 'believes', 'vision ', or the negative of these terms and other similar expressions of future performance or results, and their negatives, are intended to identify such forward -looking statements. These forward-looking statements are based upon current expectations and assumptions regarding anticipated developments and other factors affecting the Unilever G rou p (the 'Group'). They are not historical facts, nor are they guarantees of future performance.

Because these forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties, there are important factors that could cause actual re sults to differ materially from those expressed or implied by these forward-looking statements. Among other risks and uncertainties, the material or principal factors which could cause actual results to differ materially are: Unilever's global brands not meeting consumer preferences; Unilever's ability to innovate and remain c omp etitive; Unilever's investment choices in its portfolio management; the effect of climate change on Unilever's business; Unilever's ability to find sustainable solu tions to its plastic packaging; significant changes or deterioration in customer relationships; the recruitment and retention of talented employees; disruptions in our s upply chain and distribution; increases or volatility in the cost of raw materials and commodities; the production of safe and high quality products; secure and reliabl e IT infrastructure; execution of acquisitions, divestitures and business transformation projects; economic, social and political risks and natural disasters; financial risks; failure to meet high and ethical standards; and managing regulatory, tax and legal matters. A number of these risks have increased as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

These forward-looking statements speak only as of the date of this document. Except as required by any applicable law or regulation, the Group expressly disclaims any obligation or undertaking to release publicly any updates or revisions to any forward-looking statements contained herein to reflect any change in the Group's expectations with regard thereto or any change in events, conditions or circumstances on which any such statement is based.

Further details of potential risks and uncertainties affecting the Group are described in the Group's filings with the London Stock Exchange, Euronext Amsterdam and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, including in the Unilever Annual Report and Accounts 2020.

• The US is Unilever's biggest market, and winning here is a strategic priority

This is an excerpt of the original content. To continue reading it, access the original document here .

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Unilever plc published this content on 22 March 2021 and is solely responsible for the information contained therein. Distributed by Public , unedited and unaltered, on 22 March 2021 15:14:01 UTC .

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