Laura Witte, general counsel of Cargill Inc.
Laura Witte, general counsel of Cargill Inc. ()

Note: This article has been changed to reflect the correct number of Cargill Inc. attorneys in the United States working outside of the Twin Cities area.

For Cargill Inc. general counsel Laura Witte, attention to the management of outside counsel has paid off.

The Wayzata, Minn.-based agri­business giant, which reported $137 ­billion in revenues during 2013, has steadily reduced its legal expenses using a variety of tools to manage outside counsel costs, Witte said. A preferred-provider program, alternative fee arrangements and a procurement specialist are all in Cargill’s cost-reduction toolbox, she said.

The preferred-provider program was “very effective” at reducing expenses, Witte said. But payouts based on successful outcomes and flat fees instead of billable hours for legal services, as well as an employee dedicated to looking for ways to cut outside counsel costs, are important to managing expenditures, too.

“We have a pretty strong process” for sourcing legal services, said Witte, who became Cargill’s general counsel in 2011 after 26 years at the company.

Witte’s management of outside counsel extends beyond cost-control measures for the company, which operates businesses in 67 countries and faces a diverse portfolio of legal issues.

Cargill’s legal department of 185 ­attorneys is involved with transactions, intellectual property and labor and employment law, among other issues. During the past four months alone, Cargill settled U.S. Labor Department hiring discrimination charges, reached an agreement to license food safety company Neogen Corp.’s patented bovine genetics analysis tools, and entered into a deal to purchase additives manufacturer Polystar LLC.

Witte, who also serves as a Cargill corporate vice president and as its corporate secretary, believes in-house and outside counsel must work as a team. She said the lawyers in Cargill’s legal department play an active role in cases and other legal matters with outside counsel, noting that the in-house counsel ultimately are responsible for the company’s legal state of health. Cargill’s lawyers perform early case assessments to help the company anticipate what role outside counsel might play, she said.

The department has “unprecedented insight” the law firms can’t match, Witte said.

“We marry the deep subject expertise of our outside counsel with the business intimacy and pragmatism of our in-house team to ensure the best possible outcome for our business partners,” she said.

Faegre Baker Daniels has helped Cargill with commercial litigation, environmental issues and other matters during the past few years. Faegre managing partner Andrew Humphrey said Cargill is “very proactive” with its outside counsel, holding law firms accountable. “It’s a very well-run legal department,” Humphrey said.

Armed with a large legal department, with almost two-thirds of its attorneys based outside the United States, Witte said she isn’t afraid to delegate the responsibility of selecting law firms.

“I have a strong team of lawyers, and I rely on them for many, many things,” she said.

COMPANY BIO

Name of company: Cargill Inc.
Headquarters: Wayzata, Minn.
Industry: Agriculture
No. of lawyers in Twin Cities area: 60
No. of U.S. lawyers outside Twin Cities: 5
No. of lawyers outside U.S.: 120
General counsel: Laura Witte

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Robust early case assessments put us in the driver’s seat when it comes to litigation. We know what a win looks like and what we need to do to achieve it.

At the end of the day, it’s results that matter, and our in-house team has a reputation for delivering those results. We will not delegate that accountability to outside counsel.

About 40 percent of our strategic litigation is managed through alternative fee arrangements. We use flat fees to achieve certainty and success fees to drive results. It’s much better than paying for hours.

— Laura Witte