The Vodafone Group Plc logo sits illuminated on top of a telecommunications mast in Berlin, Germany, on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015
Vodafone's in-house team stands out for innovating in many areas, from contract management systems to managing talent © Bloomberg

In February, Nokia gave a public demonstration of how drones could be used with its portable network stations to transmit high-definition video and data, even when flown outside the line of sight. The technology is being developed for commercial use as well as to support rescue operations following natural disasters.

Working with drone technology is new for Nokia, now predominantly a telecommunications network and infrastructure business. To support the new venture, in-house lawyers had to become aviation law experts and predict how drone flight legislation is likely to evolve across the world. “It required lawyers to look at totally new products and areas of law to become a driver of new business,” says Taru Barrow, Nokia’s head of legal operations.

The chance to work more closely with business and to see projects through from start to finish has long been the draw for lawyers taking a legal role in a business rather than a law firm. But increasingly in-house lawyers also have the opportunity to work with new and exciting technologies, and to bring about changes in industry and wider society.

For Rajeev Merkhedkar, a general counsel at Nokia, one rewarding aspect of working on the development of drones is that the project is commercial and humanitarian. His prediction: “This technology can save hundreds of lives in disaster-affected areas — for instance, in a flood when the telecoms networks go down.”

As the new generation of lawyers tell their employers they want work that is not just well paid but meaningful and stimulating too, the opportunity to work on broader social issues may also be a strong draw towards an in-house career.

This year’s Europe Innovative Lawyers report looks for the first time at in-house legal teams’ innovations directly alongside those from law firms. The shift arose because it has become increasingly clear that the in-house section of the legal profession not only demands change in the industry but often leads and creates it.

The top-ranked in-house team, at telecoms group Vodafone, stood out because it is innovating across a range of operational areas, with comprehensive contract management systems and processes, a new talent programme, and in helping the business develop new services. “We’ve been on a transformation and innovation agenda for a while, but now there is a spread of teams looking to innovate, and a number of projects we have been working on for some time are starting to bear fruit,” says Steven Jebb, head of legal operations.

The side-by-side comparison of law firm and in-house innovations in each of the report’s categories shows that company legal departments are often leading in operational areas, where they are using data analytics at scale, as well as in devising technical legal structures that have the potential to transform important industries such as finance or healthcare.

Other legal teams are having an impact through programmes that focus on the rule of law and access to justice. Led by in-house lawyers, and backed by the economic might of multinationals, these projects potentially have the weight to influence how business is done in emerging markets and to affect large sections of an economy.

Nestlé, the Swiss food group, has seven lawyers dedicated to sustainability, human rights and rule of law matters. The team led the company’s efforts to uncover and disclose forced labour in its seafood fishing supply chain in Thailand and is helping to develop systemic ways to end human rights violations in collaboration with the Thai government.

Often, in-house lawyers are developing sophisticated technical legal expertise. Many of the most complex legal problem-solving examples the report looks at this year were created by in-house lawyers.

Legal teams from two leading healthcare companies feature for work that has the potential to change how people receive healthcare across the world.

Lawyers from GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company, helped build a research and development unit into a new business, Galvani Bioelectronics, through a joint venture with Verily Life Sciences, the healthcare division of Google owner Alphabet. The new, combined company will treat disease with miniature implants that use the electric signals that pass along the body’s nerves. Lawyers from GSK had to be versed in divergent healthcare and technology approaches to intellectual property, and worked closely with universities and research institutions on collaboration and licensing agreements.

“It was very satisfying . . . if it is successful, it will change people’s lives,” says Antony Braithwaite, associate general counsel at GSK.

If the science of healthcare delivery is developing fast, so too is how it is priced. Lawyers at pharma company Novartis have helped develop outcome-based pricing arrangements with US health insurance companies for heart disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer medicines. The new way of paying for drugs means the insurers pay full price only if the drug has a defined result for the patients. The model could change the way healthcare providers are rewarded and how the multibillion-dollar markets for their drugs operate.

While legal interest in blockchain technology is growing fast, one of the most developed examples of a working application comes from the legal team at CME Group, the financial markets company. Alongside the UK’s Royal Mint, lawyers created a blockchain-based platform to trade digital gold. The underlying technology will allow a new digital gold product, the RMG, to be traded securely and efficiently using a distributed ledger.

In the operational categories, ING Bank’s legal team is recognised for driving innovation across the bank. “We are in a unique position to pick up ideas that apply across ING but sometimes fall between the cracks of the business,” says Luc Driessen, global innovation counsel.

One idea generated by ING’s lawyers for an artificial intelligence tool has been selected for development. The bank is investing €300,000 and allowing the project team six months to develop it — an opportunity few law firm associates would receive.

At Anheuser-Busch InBev, the drinks company, the legal and compliance team is using predictive analytics to spot corruption and fraud across the newly merged company, which has 205,000 staff in 90 countries. Operating at this scale makes smart data and technology solutions more relevant and affordable when they apply to issues that affect the entire company, such as compliance or contract management.

Working within a large company gives lawyers the chance to work on projects with a wide-ranging impact on business and society. The legal team at BT, the telecoms group, is featured in the report for its role in a dispute case involving illegal streaming of live Premier League football games. “Getting involved in issues about how you regulate the internet and freedom of expression is why I came to BT,” says Patrick Forman, head of privacy law. “There aren’t many places where you get to work on issues like this or cases like this.”

Explore the Innovative Lawyers 2017 tables

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