Mark Chandler: GC of Cisco on Almost 30 Years as an In-House Lawyer

Topics: Billing & Pricing, Corporate Legal, Leadership, Legal Innovation

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Legal Executive Institute recently caught up with Mark Chandler, senior vice-president and general counsel of Cisco Systems. Chandler’s been a thought leader in the industry for years, bringing to the job an interesting mixture of savvy and pragmatism about the art of lawyering in-house.

Although he’s been in that position for almost three decades, Chandler is somewhat of an accidental lawyer. He interned for Big Law while in law school, and graduated knowing that was something he did not want to do, period. So, he found a job in an IP boutique, which lasted all of two years. “I found that the more efficient I got, the more pressure I’d get to bill more hours,” he says.

Then this reluctant lawyer went looking for another line of work. He thought about going to the London School of Economics to pursue economics, his undergraduate passion. Instead, he chanced upon an application for the Robert Bosch Foundation in Germany. He’d picked up some German in school, so he took a chance. He got accepted, and spent a year in Germany, with internships at the German Ministry of Economics and Siemens AG.

Siemen hired him and sent him back to the U.S. — but not as a lawyer. He worked in marketing, and settled into a groove. But Siemens had other plans for him, and gave him a transfer to Germany. By then, he’d had enough of living abroad, and it was time once again to figure out what to do. He tells a complicated story of a political fundraiser, an old friend, and this hot new company looking for a general counsel. That was 29 years ago this July. A series of high-tech in-house jobs led to the post at Cisco, where he became general counsel in 2001.

Cisco, for the digitally-challenged, supplies much of the hardware and software that runs the Internet. It’s grown exponentially over the years, mostly by swallowing up other companies as it marched to market dominance. (What companies has Cisco bought? It’s too much to list them here, but the company’s website helpfully lists them.)

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Mark Chandler, Cisco GC

For his part, Chandler runs a department of 230 lawyers, along with 60 compliance professionals. They’re organized by business unit with a few lawyers who serve permanently in several key practice areas like intellectual property and, as you might guess, M&A. The department gets reorganized regularly, Chandler says, because the composition of the business units change. (Translation: They buy another company.) He also oversees a group of 30 legal operations pros, who, he says, are always looking for ways to make the team’s internal operations run smoother and cheaper. True to Cisco’s geek culture, the ops unit is headed by a lawyer who once was a computer chip designer.

You might think a huge company like Cisco has a big legal budget, and you’d be right. Chandler, who stands apart from his counterparts elsewhere in divulging details like his spend, estimates his outside counsel tab at $100 million (70% of this is on a fixed-fee basis), and says the department spends an equal amount internally. To whom does this largesse go? Chandler’s candid about his go-to firms, too. “All our corporate and securities work is done by Fenwick & West. It’s done on a fixed-fee basis and we benchmark the cost frequently, every 18 months, with what others are spending. That’s all-you-can-eat for securities and board work.” M&A work, he adds, is handled by four firms on a fixed-fee basis with a set number of deals being handled on a fixed-rate per deal: Fenwick & West, Hogan & Lovells, Covington and Cooley.

If it all sounds very… well, serious, Chandler’s got a human side, too. While he looks for intelligence in his new hires, he’s also looking for people who like to work with other people. “I’ve been accused of assembling a dinner party, not a legal department,” he says. “One of the things I love is that with our meetings, they’re not all staring at their laptops. There’s a lot of chat. The team likes each other, and we have a very low level of politics.”

“And I think that desire to be with each other is a critical part of our success.”