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Fighting for merit

Simona Musso, general counsel at Lavazza, speaks with senior research analyst, Sara Mageit, about the changes she has experienced in almost 24 years with the company, the experiences of being a woman in a senior role in Italian business, and her team’s involvement in putting the first espresso machine in space

Can you tell me a bit about your role at Lavazza and how it’s evolved over the years?

In February, I’ll have been working for Lavazza for 24 years. I joined after seven years in private practice. I joined Lavazza when the legal department was in its embryonic stage so I had the opportunity to build it up from scratch. During my time here the company has changed dramatically, transforming itself from a local Italian company to a real international company. From a company that in 1996 had 80% of its revenues coming from Italy and 20% from international sales, now, after 23 years, we are in exactly the opposite situation. The role of Italy and its market shares remain exactly the same, but Lavazza has experienced global growth.

The same transformation has happened in the legal department. In 1996 we were focused mainly on Italian issues, with some experience abroad in international markets and distributions. The percentage of our work was an exact reflection of our revenue shares. We have since had the opportunity to increase our experience both in terms of organic growth, supporting the company in international contracts with distributors and with corporations of local subsidiaries, and with M&A – specifically within the last ten years.

With the work becoming more international, were there any specific challenges to the in-house team because of this?

Yes of course, growing internationally means that you will naturally experience different patterns, different laws, and different cultures; so you have to work with local lawyers/local counsel and you have to change approach with each country in which you are present, plus you have to improve your knowledge of the local regulations. At the end of the day, it’s always worth the change, even though it’s challenging work.

As a longstanding general counsel for one of Italy’s, if not one of the world’s, most iconic coffee companies, you have certainly been a core part of its trajectory and history. What have been the most monumental and memorable parts of your career with Lavazza to date?

The thing I am most proud of is that I moved from a technical role to a business partner role. I am now part of the high-level leadership team of the CEO. This means I can be part of the decision-making process and more than a legal consultant. This is the most notable result from changing the GC role from a legal technical focus to a business protection focus. This wasn’t exactly easy of course. First of all, because I’m a lawyer, and lawyers are very often seen as individuals who block the business more than help it. I’ve had to work on this during my time at Lavazza. And, secondly, because I’m a woman. These two elements sometimes worked against me, but I’m very proud of my results.

As a woman in a senior position, is there any advice you would give to other women trying to break the glass ceiling in the legal industry?

I am proud to be a woman, but as I am married with two children it has, of course, been difficult at times, especially when my children were young. I made lots of sacrifices, not only with time dedicated to my family, but also because I always try to have a healthy balance between work and my personal life. I think that sometimes the most important thing for a woman is to be very resilient. Especially in Italian culture, it’s not so easy to be a woman in a senior level job. Women are against other women sometimes, and I think we have to unite together in a company, work together, and not just for what we in Italy call ‘Pink Quotas’ – the policy of fulfilling a gender quota which says that as a woman you need to be protected in certain ways and that the board of directors in each company has to dedicate a certain number of places to women. I’m not particularly in favour of this. I think we have to fight for merit, not for the fact that we are women. It’s important to be recognised because we are capable and we are intelligent, and not only because we are women.

Do you think diversity is championed enough in the Italian legal market? What are the benchmarks in place within your legal team to make sure you have a balance of ethnicity, culture, or gender? Is that something you particularly look at?

For my team, I always choose my colleagues based on merit – only this. We have tests as part of the application process, and the ultimate decision is based on their CV and experience. None of my colleagues have been chosen based on their gender in order to fill a quota. I always drive the choice. We have had times when we had only women in the team, when women performed better than men in their applications. At the moment, however, we roughly have the same number of men and women and are very well-balanced.

I saw on your LinkedIn profile that you are a visiting professor of business law at ESCP Europe, the European business school. What does that entail? How have you found the experience? Would you encourage in-house lawyers to get involved in academia/further their education?

This is something that I’ve been doing for just the last three years and it really is something that was a new challenge for me. Of course I needed some time to prepare for it, it’s not something that you can take lightly. It was challenging, but it was really exciting for me and gives me the opportunity to meet young people, young learners with a different approach – they are millennials and they are different to how young people were 20 years ago. They have a different perspective and a different attitude. For example, law and technology is part of the business law school syllabus, but when I studied law, law and tech and internet tech were not included in any manual or syllabus.

This meant I needed a refresh of my competencies and I had to study things that I’ve never come across before in my personal experience. I now keep up to date with all things legal technology and AI applied to the legal profession. It’s a good opportunity to stay in contact with the new generation. It’s also important to transfer experience to young people. The thing they want from me is experience more than knowledge. I really enjoy transferring some experience to the new generation.

Focusing on your team at Lavazza, which has won several food and beverage in-house team of the year awards, is there anything you motivate your team to do particularly?

We always call ourselves ‘the dream team’ because, for me, working with someone that you like is really important. I have the great opportunity to do that and I have been lucky to work with people I personally chose. This is a great advantage of course. I always convey the need to act as business partners to my team. That is, becoming a strategic and integrated partner in the advancement of the company’s business, providing not only great legal analysis, but results that improve the entire organisation’s success. That is the role of the law department as a strategic partner in the client’s business.

A question on the law firms you work with. When you are looking for external counsel, what would you say the most important thing is for you in selecting law firms?

The most important thing for us is that they work with us on a side-by-side basis. We try to work with law firms that are able to work with us as partners and as part of the same team. We don’t like the attitude of the external lawyer acting as the ultimate expert with a sort of superiority attitude vis-à-vis the internal lawyer. We like to be involved and we don’t like to outsource anything. We like to work on contracts together. Acting as part of the same team is very important for us. Besides that, the first thing we look for is competencies, of course, and the fact that they have a good track record in the country regarding, let’s say, M&A.

Putting the first espresso machine in space is definitely amongst one of Lavazza’s high points. Giuseppe Lavazza admittedly said it took a lot of years of hard work and tests, including being admitted to NASA standards. Was this something you had some involvement in?

Yes, we were involved in it from the very beginning in the sense that we drafted the contract with the inventor of this machine and followed all the technical developments. We were involved in the communications with NASA. We followed all the legal issues related to this without external counsel. To be honest, from the very beginning it seemed more a dream – when it was initially announced, it seemed something impossible for us to accomplish. Everyone in the company thought it was an impossible project, but then it became reality and I was really excited when we saw Samantha Cristoforetti having the first espresso coffee in space, and it was really a moving moment for everyone who had the opportunity to see it. It was the very first Lavazza espresso in space, an Italian coffee drunk by an Italian woman astronaut. It was a poignant moment for Italian history.

On a more personal note, what motivates you personally and what are the simple pleasures that make your day?

I am lucky to be motivated every day. I like my job. I think that if you can interpret the law and work as an internal lawyer from the perspective of being a business partner that can change your perspective every day. You can change your work and can be focused on what is really interesting for the company. I am proud to be a Lavazza employee. Every day we breathe the sense and the spirit of being a family because Lavazza is a family-owned company and we value respecting everyone here and retaining good relationships amongst employees. The fact that everyone here respects you is very important. This is really motivating – working for a company that respects you is important for day-by-day life.

Is there anything you’d like to add? Any projects that you’re working on?

I’m working on the transformation of the legal department into Legal 4.0 – the digitalisation of the legal department and innovation in terms of our processes. We have to combine the practice of law with appropriate technologies, processes, and innovation to re-design the digital workplace, explore how collaborative platforms, advanced analytics, document management, practice management tools, and artificial intelligence can be paired to achieve the goal of becoming an efficient and innovative legal services provider.

This will be implemented with the creation of a new function – a legal project manager – who will be in charge of developing training, templates, self-help resources, and other best practices to support the team and department, identifying and tracking metrics on usage of tools, user satisfaction, and feedback, and providing project management support for technology adoption and implementation as it relates to legal service delivery on engagements with outside counsel and other legal service providers.