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Robert Stern is senior vice president and general counsel of Sodexho Inc. He supervises about 15 attorneys in the law department, as well as two attorneys in the government affairs department. What does your company do? Sodexho is the leading provider of food and facilities management services in North America, with over $5.5 billion in annual sales and more than 120,000 employees. We provide food service, plant operations, maintenance, housekeeping, laundry, and other services to more than 6,000 corporations, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, colleges, and military sites. We even have law firms as clients. How did you come to this job? I was an in-house attorney for Marriott International’s management services division in 1998, when that division spun off from Marriott and merged with the North American operations of Sodexho Alliance. At the time of that transaction, I was offered the general counsel position for what was then called Sodexho Marriott Services, which was a separate publicly traded company. Sodexho Inc. is now the North American subsidiary of Sodexho Alliance S.A., which is based in France. To whom do you report? I report to our CEO, Michel Landel. How does this job compare with being in private practice? I enjoy the usual benefits of in-house practice: not having to keep track of your time in six-minute intervals, developing long-term relationships with the business clients, and seeing the real impact over time of our advice on transactions and other matters. The sense of contributing to a larger team and mission is quite meaningful. Like law firm practice, this job offers the satisfaction of providing valuable, responsive, and practical legal services. I really enjoy being exposed to all of the legal areas that impact our company, not just one specialty. My position has also allowed me to become involved in many other related areas, such as government affairs, corporate responsibility, and our Sodexho Foundation philanthropic activities. What’s top of mind for you in your job at the moment? Which area of law is your biggest challenge? Right now, I think most general counsel are focused on compliance issues, and I’m no exception. The combination of Sarbanes-Oxley, the ongoing accounting scandals, and the increased enforcement activity seen in so many areas makes it more important than ever to have a strong, comprehensive compliance program and to shore up your control environment. As the head of the legal department, what are your top administrative issues or challenges? Like most companies, we are always looking to increase our efficiency and lower our total legal expenses. One tough challenge is to actually increase your training and advice on the front end in order to lower the likelihood of legal disputes down the road. That’s not easy when you’re also doing all of the day-to-day “fire fighting” with a lean staff. We also take recruiting very seriously. We have an extremely low turnover rate, so it is very important to hire the right person for the long term. Then, if you’ve hired the right people, it’s important to step back and assess whether you have the right people in the right positions. What kind of work do you send out? The great majority of our outside work is litigation. When a company is doing business in every part of the country, an efficient in-house department cannot be staffed to handle the actual in-court litigation. There are also a few specialty areas for which we rely on outside counsel, such as health care regulations, but this is a much smaller portion of our outside fees. Based on the law department benchmarking I’ve done, we tend to have a higher portion of our total legal costs coming from in-house expenses than from outside fees, and therefore, I believe, our overall total legal expenses are lower than most companies of our size. Have you changed your company’s relationship with outside counsel in the past year? How? We are always assessing the effectiveness of our outside firms and making some changes. Our few major law firm relationships, however, have tended to be fairly stable the last few years. One of our current efforts is to increase the amount of business we do with women- and minority-owned firms and with women and minority attorneys at all firms. Which outside counsel do you turn to in various substantive areas? We work with Venable in several areas, including federal government contracting and employment matters in the mid-Atlantic states. We work with Hogan & Hartson on certain tax and corporate matters, Ober Kaler for health care, and Davis Polk for securities and financing work. We have many fine labor and litigation partner firms in various regions of the country, including Seyfarth Shaw and Grotta, Glassman & Hoffman. Also, Cooley Manion Jones in Boston is a top major litigation firm for us.

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