Global Reach, Personal Touch

Delphi’s general counsel empowers his specialized team of attorneys to tackle the legal complexities of a global company, supported by a culture o…

David Sherbin's career advice: "Walk the halls and find out what is happening outside your department.”

The numbers are astonishing—126 manufacturing sites, 32countries, 160,000 global employees, and 19,000 engineers and scientists. One of the world’s largest automotive suppliers, Delphi Automotive PLC engineers and manufactures complex high-tech products for the automotive and commercial vehicle markets that keep drivers safe and connected.

The legal expertise and touch points required for a global company of this magnitude must be well coordinated and well executed. Enter seasoned general counsel David Sherbin. Following general counsel roles at Federal-Mogul and Pulte Homes, Sherbin joined Delphi in 2005 right before the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Delphi emerged from bankruptcy in 2009, and since then Sherbin has helped Delphi successfully turn its business around, all the while building a global, business-savvy legal team. Three driving principles are at the core of his leadership philosophy: trust, training, and transparency.

Under Sherbin’s leadership, Delphi’s legal team consists of 35 attorneys spanning seven countries. Sherbin’s team helps navigate complex issues, any one of which could have a significant impact on the company. “The breadth of issues is, at times, staggering,” says Sherbin. “On a typical day we can deal with environmental issues in India, personnel problems in China, followed by an afternoon tackling commercial issues in Brazil and regulatory concerns in Europe. My team is unique in that we are one of the few departments at Delphi that touches every aspect of the company, and we understand the importance and gravity of our work. We have to break down the silos, and it starts with our own team.”

Trust Your Team

Because of the global nature of Delphi and the automotive industry, Sherbin’s team operates and is located in multiple countries and continents. This brings a complexity to both hiring team members and the work they will do. “I look for people who not only have a strong legal background and varied skill set, but also have a strong and demonstrated business approach and understanding,” Sherbin says.

Sherbin sees the attorneys on his team as trusted partners who are experts in their unique sub-specialties, based on location and area of expertise. He relies heavily on his team to keep abreast of changing regulations and empowers them to handle any legal issues that arise. “Delphi used to be primarily a US-based company but that has flipped,” he says. “We have to have experts all over the world and tackle local legal issues as they arise.”

To that end, Sherbin has organized the legal department into eight centers of excellence. These centers are comprised of Delphi attorneys in different geographical locations that focus on a specific legal area such as intellectual property, purchasing, or labor and personnel. “The centers of excellence are extremely effective at facilitating communication, empowering people within the department to take the lead on projects, and maintaining consistency both across business units and regions,” Sherbin says.

Regular discussion within the centers about best practices, acceptable risk tolerance, compliance concerns, and approved forms of agreement ensure a consistent and nimble corporate approach for issues as they arise. “We strive to run the legal department like a global law firm,” Sherbin says. “For the most part, work flows seamlessly between offices, with international teams focusing on issues and concerns unique to their specialties and jurisdictions.”

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An engineer tests radiated emissions at Delphi’s China Technical Center in Shanghai.

Training for the Future

To further ensure that Delphi stays on top of its game, Sherbin believes in intensive training to shore up any areas that may need more legal attention. For example, he spearheaded an initiative to create and train an in-house team of patent engineers by encouraging Delphi engineers to be retrained for the position. The selected employees are undergoing a two-year training program. “We monitor their productivity,” Sherbin says. “And because they’re experienced engineers who have worked closely with our engineering community, the communication they have with our engineers in the drafting of patents is extremely efficient.”

The program has been a win-win for Delphi’s legal team and the engineers. Delphi now

has licensed patent engineers in the United States and Europe, virtually eliminating the need to use outside patent counsel and offsetting substantial outside counsel fees. For the engineers, it is further career development that can help them now and in the future. And for Sherbin, it is just an additional step to strengthen and broaden the scope of his international team.

Communication is Key

Managing a team of attorneys and engineers working in multiple locations and time zones around the globe comes with its own set of challenges. But Sherbin addresses those challenges with an open-door policy and a strong belief in regular communications.

He holds monthly conference calls with all of the attorneys around the globe and quarterly on-site meetings with the entire US team. He also initiated a biannual global conference for the attorneys to interact and share best practices. Plus, he says, “My team knows they have access to me. They e-mail and call me on a regular basis. Although we have traditional reporting relationships for efficiency purposes, I do not believe in a hierarchical structure.”

This belief in a flat organization is helpful in bringing the problems to the forefront. Sherbin encourages transparency and wants concerns and issues to bubble up quickly. “Don’t sweep something under the rug because it might be bad news,” he says.

Keeping a handle on the big picture and trusting his highly trained team to handle the details is a large part of Sherbin’s strategy to successfully manage the wide range of legal issues Delphi faces. “I take great satisfaction in rolling up my sleeves and digging in to certain issues,” he says. “I find it rewarding to work with so many really talented, bright, and motivated people. At the end of the day, I love the job, I care deeply about the company, and I find working here with my team and the organization very rewarding.”