Susie Lees, general counsel of The Allstate Corp.
Susie Lees, general counsel of The Allstate Corp. ()

Susie Lees is drawing upon her quarter-century experience in the in-house legal department at The Allstate Corp. to overhaul the department she took over in 2012 — and it’s working.

Lees takes a big-picture perspective at the insurance giant, where she’s taken apart and redesigned a 656-lawyer, 1,300-employee team. “By putting some larger blocks of work together, we opened up the opportunity for cross-training and development of our lawyers,” said Lees, who also serves as executive vice president and secretary of the $34.5 billion company.

Merging groups of lawyers who worked on Allstate’s life business with those who served property and casualty, plus trademark and marketing team lawyers, was a key step. Other changes included combining all litigation teams in a group with the document-production team and bringing all transactional lawyers into one group.

Outside counsel is sold on the plan. Lees’ changes have reduced bureaucracy and silos in the department, said John Schwolsky, co-chairman of the corporate insurance and regulatory group at New York-based Willkie Farr & Gallagher. Schwolsky handles capital markets, governance and transactional work for the company.

“By putting lawyers closer to the client, she’s basically creating a situation where a decision loop is much shorter, so decisions can be made more quickly and more responsively,” Schwolsky said.

Lees is enhancing her team’s expertise through new training programs. She’s implemented a two-year core training program in legal issues related to the insurance business, offered in quarterly modules. Another is a “6 in 60 Program,” in which six lawyers each give 10-minute talks about key legal developments. That’s done three times per year, to expose lawyers to hot-button issues and provide them with speaking opportunities. “They’re really so beneficial when you have a large group of lawyers and you just want people to be aware of issues,” Lees said.

The changes Lee has implemented mostly affect the 110 lawyers at Allstate’s headquarters. The company’s field lawyers or retained counsel located elsewhere primarily defend lawsuits filed against Allstate’s insureds.

Allstate taps outside counsel to handle any litigation for or against the company and any international work. It also uses outside firms to supplement inside lawyers’ expertise in investment transactions, major business deals and securities work.

With the reorganization accomplished, Lees is tackling new challenges, including diversity. All­state is switching from its own diversity scorecard for outside firms to the scorecard developed by the Minority Corporate Counsel Association. “We like our matters staffed with diverse attorneys, but as far as tracking and statistics, it’s a work in progress,” Lees said.

Pro bono is also encouraged but not mandatory, she said. Still, Allstate consistently helps two Chicago entities: the Center for Disability & Elder Law in drafting wills and Carbrini Green Legal Aid for client clemency petitions and its criminal records expungement help desk.

Allstate doesn’t tally pro bono hours but Lees is considering changes there, too. “When you take over something that you’ve been part of for a long time, you’re faced with the opportunity to shape things,” she said.

COMPANY BIO

Name of company: The Allstate Corp.
Headquarters: Northbrook, Ill.
Industry: Insurance
No. of lawyers in Chicago area: 110
No. of U.S. lawyers outside Chicago: 545
No. of lawyers outside U.S.: 1
General counsel: Susie Lees

KEYS TO SUCCESS

► Job One is protecting the company’s reputation. Your job goes beyond interpreting the law; you have to think about the impact to customers, employees and shareholders.

► You have to learn to walk in your own shoes. You have to understand who you are and what you do well.

► You have to be an aggressive time manager. You have to be ruthless about your time, particularly, as a general counsel.

— Susie Lees