Rick Palmore, general counsel of General Mills.
Rick Palmore, general counsel of General Mills. (Joe Dickie)

General Mills Inc.’s legal department is a finely tuned operation, processing everything from food law to employment work and regularly appraising the outside firms it relies on to handle its thorniest issues.

Just 48 in-house lawyers handle the most of the legal work for the food giant, which had $17.8 billion in revenues last fiscal year. Huge transactions, complex international matters, some routine intellectual property work and litigation are farmed out.

When it comes to choosing outside counsel, General Mills puts candidates through a stringent preferred-provider process every two to three years. The process involves formal requests for proposals and examines factors including the firm’s associate-development process and diversity. It also includes meeting associates who will work on General Mills matters. “It’s a very, very lengthy, cumbersome process,” deputy general counsel Linda Soranno said.

In the selection of outside counsel and within its own department, diversity is key. Executive vice president and general counsel Rick Palmore wrote the legal industry milestone “Call to Action” in 2004 while general counsel at Sara Lee Corp. The initiative called upon corporate legal departments and law firms to increase the numbers of women and minority attorneys they hire and retain.

Palmore, who also is chief compliance and risk management officer at General Mills, became founding chairman of the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity in 2009 and remains a board member.

He has focused on diversity since his arrival in 2008 at General Mills. Today, one-quarter of the company’s lawyers belong to minority groups and 47 percent are female. Overall, more than half of the company’s lawyers are female, minorities, have a disability or are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered people. Likewise, more than half of General Mills’ billings by outside counsel in the United States goes to attorneys who fit those categories. “The growing and considerable body of evidence that diverse teams outperform nondiverse teams persuades us that we cannot afford to exclude diverse talent from our teams if we are interested in winning,” Palmore said.

General Mills goes beyond lip service to diversity, said Jerry Blackwell of Minneapolis-based Blackwell Burke, a minority-owned firm. Blackwell said his firm has gone from handling one file for the company nine years ago to serving as national trial counsel on major cases. “What sets General Mills apart is its level of execution,” Blackwell said.

Of late, General Mills is marshaling outside law firms to help defend cases involving its labels and ingredients. The company is fighting back — and hard. “Lawsuits which contend that our claims are false are accusations that we have breached [our] trust with our consumers and customers,” Palmore said. We cannot stand idly by in the face of such fundamental accusations.”

Last year, for example, General Mills convinced federal courts in Minnesota and in the Northern District of California to partially dismiss two putative class actions. Both suits challenge the company’s use of the word “natural” in marketing Nature Valley granola and related products. Blackwell Burke, joined by O’Melveny & Myers about four months after the order, represent the company in the Minnesota case. Perkins Coie of Seattle is working on the California case.

COMPANY BIO

Name of company: General Mills Inc.
Headquarters: Minneapolis
Industry: Food products
No. of lawyers in Twin Cities area: 36
No. of U.S . lawyers outside Twin Cities: 0
No. of lawyers outside U.S.: 12
General counsel: Rick Palmore

KEYS TO SUCCESS

Be curious: Life-long learning is not only a key to success, in my view, but also a key to personal growth and development and ultimately happiness.

Be authentic: I believe that most people have a very keen nose for sniffing out those who are not authentic and those who do not act with integrity.

Be prepared: There is no excuse for not being prepared. Life always surprises us.

— Rick Palmore