Changing Adobe’s Legal Team from the Inside Out

Denise Recalde Executive Features, Legal Leave a Comment

How channeling the leadership style of famed NBA player John Stockton helped General Counsel navigate change in Adobe’s legal department during the company’s transition to the cloud

Though highly successful at what he does, Mike Dillon is not your briefcase-toting, traditional lawyer with a stuffy legal office to match his credentials. He’s the current Senior Vice President (SVP) and General Counsel (GC) for Adobe, one of the most innovative software companies in the world. Technology companies in the Silicon Valley often have distinct, fast-paced cultures. Dillon’s work style reflects the Silicon Valley way of thinking, working and communicating.

He joined Adobe in August 2012 from Silver Spring Networks. Before that, he served as SVP and GC at Sun Microsystems from 2004 to 2010 and at ONI Systems from 1999 to 2002. Dillon has drawn from his experiences working at technology companies to evolve the way he communicates and engages with his peers and team members to help foster productivity, efficiency and collaboration.

According to Dillon, earlier in his in-house career, he thought there were opportunities for the legal function to do more work remotely or in non-office settings, but “there was a lot of resistance because I think, traditionally, lawyers are a little change-adverse.”

So he took it upon himself to ditch his office in a bid to get people comfortable with the idea that effective work could be done with just a laptop, and started roaming around working out of open spaces, conference rooms and even the company cafeteria and coffee shop. He’s worked this way ever since.

“Inevitably [I’d] have these employees come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re the legal guy, aren’t you?’ and then they’d ask me about a legal or business issue they were facing,” Dillon said. “We all want to be proactive and solve problems in advance. When you’re accessible, it improves the relationship with employees and allows you to deal with problems earlier in the process, and not at the last minute. My feeling is that lawyers largely use offices as a crutch. If lawyers want to be engaged in the business, they need to get out of their office, integrate themselves into the teams they support and understand challenges early on.”


Changing With the Cloud

A policy of integrating with teams and being accessible has proven valuable to Dillon in light of the transformation of Adobe’s business to a cloud-based SaaS and subscription service. The shift means the company will no longer sell prepackaged software with 18-month-long product development cycles. Instead, Adobe’s new Creative Cloud service continuously delivers to its users the latest versions of flagship creative applications, including Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator and Dreamweaver.

According to Dillon, becoming a cloud-based service company has been a dramatic change for Adobe’s 12,000 employees, and for his organization. “It means our team has to be equipped to make real-time decisions, which is a significant change in mindset,” he said. “In this environment, you don’t have weeks and months to evaluate a risk. You have to make judgments based on expertise, and if you’ve developed a strong, trusted relationship with your business partner, your judgment will be supported.”

The change to a cloud-based offering also has led to organizational changes in Adobe’s Legal Department, such as establishing a Legal Operations team, combining the Litigation team with the Intellectual Property team, and combining Adobe’s Corporate/Mergers & Acquisitions, Real Estate and Employment teams under one umbrella. As Adobe repositioned its brand, Dillon felt it was important for the legal team to discuss their department’s brand and culture at staff meetings, which raised some eyebrows.

“It’s strange for people to hear a GC talk about the importance of the brand,” Dillon acknowledged, “but what ultimately resulted was a team decision to hire a well-known legal writer to train the department on how to write with simplicity and clarity in all our policies and agreements. We also put together a style guide so that everybody in the organization communicates consistently, reflecting the brand of our organization and the company. It’s been very successful, and we keep getting a lot of positive feedback from both internal and external customers.”


Retooling Teams

As the maker of powerful digital tools and products, Adobe continuously evaluates how to implement its own products to streamline the work process, according to Dillon. His own legal department actively uses Adobe eSign services, an electronic signature software solution, and Connect Web conferencing to reshape trainings and departmental meetings. This has been critical considering the company’s 160-person Legal and Government Relations team is spread out across the world, in places like India and Romania.

“We spend a lot of time focusing on tools that create an environment [where our foreign-based employees] understand that they are not just a part of the team but that they are the team,” Dillon said. “To do this successfully, [it’s important] to share knowledge, have real-time connections and establish a sense of community.”

What goes hand in hand with the technology is Adobe’s policy of deepening employee understanding of the business. For example, once a month, the legal team conducts an all-hands webcast where a businessperson—an expert about a line of company products (e.g., Adobe eSign services)—is paired up with one of the company lawyers that supports that business, and they both talk and offer perspectives of the same line of products.

Another department program invites junior employees with recognized potential to participate in Dillon’s management team meetings for a quarter.

“The idea is to give employees a sense of how we view the organization as a whole and what change we are trying to drive [as well as to] get feedback from them,” he said, “because they are the future leaders of the organization.”

Assisting Like Stockton

Dillon once had the good fortune to work with an HR business partner who made the observation to him one day that he was a “servant leader.” This is a term Dillon took to mean as slightly negative until he realized that his role is to his organization as what famed NBA player John Stockton was to the Utah Jazz for so many years.

Dillon explained that if you judged Stockton from afar, you’d find that he was a good but not great shooter, that he wasn’t fast, wasn’t tall, wasn’t muscular—but that every team he played on was a championship team. In the record books, Stockton holds the player record for assists, getting the ball to someone who scores.

“My style is to try to channel John Stockton,” Dillon said. “I spend most of my time thinking of how I get my team the ball, how to remove obstacles from their success and growth, and how to help them get visibility. How to challenge them to take a tough shot knowing that they may fail, but that the next time they take that shot, they will be better prepared and that they’ll learn something even if they miss. So that’s more my leadership and management style, and I honestly probably spend 60 to 70 percent of my work day thinking about things like that.” ♦


Changing Cadence: Blogging & Taking It Down a Notch

Becoming an active blogger has led Dillon down several interesting paths that he didn’t imagine he’d be on when he started blogging around 10 years ago. Because of it, he’s published a book called “Changing Cadence” and found that his blog resonates with thousands of followers, whether on legal issues, team management, travel, cycling or hanging out with his wife and kids. Indeed, his blog has even influenced the legal world while offering an Adobe perspective.

“When I write something for a specific audience like patent litigation reform, I intend for the posts to be talked about in other articles because that helps move the needle forward on something that is hugely important to job creation in the United States,” Dillon said. “But at the end of the day, I also hope they think positively and differently about in-house legal professionals and about Adobe through my blog.”

Writing the blog also led him to publish a book about a trip he took cycling across America in 2010—an incredible journey that was an extension of him seeking a way to unplug after a grueling two years of working on a major acquisition deal. Dillon still takes time off to travel with friends or family to remote, hard-to reach places just to “get off the grid,” something he actively encourages other professionals to do.

“It’s never too late to change the cadence of your life,” he said. “[Getting away] allows you to really gain perspective, and you come away from those breaks realizing that we’re not all one dimensional, we aren’t that big contract that we just closed or that big acquisition or that big litigation. We’re much more than that as humans, and so tapping into that and regaining that sense of perspective, I think, is just hugely important.”

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