“It’s all about supporting the business and the team,” is the natural response of Mark A. Smolik when asked what excites him about his role as general counsel and chief compliance officer of DHL’s supply chain operations in the Americas.
“As a company, we go to great lengths to provide service excellence to our customers, something that is top of mind for everyone on our team. That has gone a long way in helping us earn the trust and respect of our business colleagues who view us as key contributors to their business, not just members of the legal team. Having a seat at the table is part of what makes what we do in legal so exciting.”
Nine professionals, including seven lawyers, report directly to Smolik: Rob Whipple, litigation; Andrew Post, commercial; Aaron Granger, employment; Carsten Beck, transactions; Jason Kirkham, real estate; Alejandro Moreno, Mexico; Eduardo Nogueira, South America; Wayne Wooddell, compliance; and Kelli Saunders, legal operations and economic development.
“I have the privilege of working with some incredibly talented and dedicated individuals,” says Smolik. “Scores of team members work collaboratively to handle the heavy volume of work flowing through our department. We’ve assembled a dream team. I am blessed to work alongside each of them.”
Since joining DHL in 2009, Smolik has seen his team grow from seven to 58 and they’ve proven their value in many ways, including defending more than a dozen class-action cases and a handling a variety of other critical business matters.
Class-action lawsuits—whatever their merits—are something most every big company has to deal with, and when you’re a global heavyweight in the logistics and supply-chain industry, they can come from all directions.
“The operational disciplines we have in place in our organization are best in class,” says Smolik. “Despite that, and like many large organizations, we’ve been embroiled in a number of legal challenges seeking to test those disciplines. My team continues to work closely with our business to assure we are vigilant in defending the best interests of our organization.”
To make sure that happens, it’s important to get everyone on the same legal page, and that may mean thinking outside the box, a requirement that Smolik makes a department priority. Drawing on his court room experience as a young lawyer, and remembering the value of mock trials during his years at Cleveland-Marshall College of Law, Smolik arranges such exercises for seasoned professionals.
Last year, Smolik challenged his team to a project geared at testing the integrity of the language in the company’s customer contracts if faced with having to defend it. The team came up with a fictitious lawsuit against DHL for alleged breach of contract brought by a major customer. With a panel of retired judges partaking, the exercise at the Ohio State University Moritz College of Law was streamed worldwide.
“The exercise generated a great deal of enthusiasm among our team and our business,” Smolik explains from his office in Westerville, Ohio. “We are fortunate our operations teams are so passionately committed to customer service that we face few legal claims from customers. The mock trial was a great learning experience for the entire team and the many others who sat in on the exercise and ensuing discussion.
“You can hire a good lawyer to tell you what the law says, but it is far more challenging to find a business-centric lawyer who has the talent to interpret that law and apply it in a way that truly resonates with the business. We go to great lengths to assure each member of our team fully embraces the business-first attitude of the department and that they live it day-in and day-out no matter where in the department they work.”
Legal expertise isn’t all that consumes his team’s time. Smolik stresses to his team the importance of bringing an entrepreneurial approach to their day-to-day responsibilities that fall in four general categories: legal, commercial contracts management, compliance and economic development.
Metrics aren’t just for the business end of an operation, reminds a general counsel who grades the legal team on key performance indicators.
Five years ago he created a legal operations function that’s now a critical part of the overall operations. That team is relied upon for everything from budgeting and financial analysis to vendor and personnel management.
“The return on our investment in the legal operations team has been significant,” he says. “I have a team responsible for negotiating tax incentives tied to our infrastructure investments and jobs creation. They’ve created a profit center that is valued highly by our business.”
Even with a team of 58, the heavy volume of legal work has DHL turning to outside counsel when needed. Smolik remembers how upon arriving at DHL eight years ago, the sparseness of the legal team necessitated even more outsourcing, with little means of assessing whether the company was getting value and its money’s worth.
“We view our external counsel as extensions of our department,” he says. “To assure we are getting sustainable and meaningful value from each of our firms, we evaluate them annually against objective key performance indicators. We share with them their strengths and opportunities for improvement.
“Much in the same way we evaluate our own performance, we also evaluate the performance of our law firms. Having open and transparent discussions with our firms has significantly improved the level of service and value we receive. Each of our firms understands well our expectations. We tie our compensation arrangements to a firm’s performance against our key performance indicators and metrics. It is an entrepreneurial approach to the practice of law. Something that has served us and our law firm partners very well.”
Business has always seemed to come first for Smolik, who founded a hauling company when he was 16 and a construction company three years later. Even then he had the vision of merging construction with law, although he always wanted to be a doctor. But, by his own admission, he never had the grades to get into medical school.
His college guidance counselor helped steer him toward law school, and before he was even licensed in his home state of Ohio, he had already filed his first case.
As he explains, a hard-working single mother of five wasn’t paid what she was owed as a real estate broker.
“You never have the perfect set of facts, but the builder my client represented would not pay her the full amount of commissions owed. With little in writing between them, the case was challenging,” Smolik remembers.
The jury sided with Smolik’s client after a weeklong trial, even wanting to assess higher damages, something the judge understandably disallowed.
That pro bono case was the least Smolik could have done for that client, who just so happened to be his mother.
“Just months after passing the Ohio bar exam, a senior partner at the firm where I was working at the time summed it up best when he said during my trail preparation: ‘nothing like being baptized by fire.’ That comment has stuck with me for 30 years. It was a challenging and lonely learning experience. It’s something I don’t want anyone on my team to experience,” Smolik says.
“We go to great lengths to assure we win and lose as a team and we prepare for all possible outcomes. In many ways, that first trial taught me more about what not to do but it also taught me about giving back, something my team and I take great pride in doing.”