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Legal Leadership: harnessing GenAI to revolutionise our legal teams

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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

Leadership

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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