Kirkland Hicks

If there’s one thing that Kirkland Hicks has learned in the last 14 years, it’s that change is the only constant.

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Kirkland Hicks
Vice President, General Counsel & Secretary
VITALS: Hicks manages 45 Towers Watson attorneys around the world. A long tenure in a fast-growing organization has taught him all sides of the business.

Hicks started with Watson Wyatt as the firm’s seventh lawyer in 2000, and stepped into a legal team dedicated to facilitating rapid growth. Two years ago, he became Towers Watson’s general counsel. At that point, company stock traded at roughly $50 a share. Today, it trades around $120. The international professional-services firm created by the 2010 amalgamation of Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt has 14,500 employees in 36 countries and annual revenues topping $3 billion. Towers Watson is the world’s largest operator of private health-care exchanges, and the company’s services are both highly regulated and geographically diverse. It is Hicks’ job to build, lead, and maintain an extremely strong legal team capable of performing in an always changing environment.

Since Towers Watson operates across many different industries in many different countries, Hicks and his colleagues—who handle litigation management, corporate transactions, governance, securities, employment, compliance, and other areas—need to be prepared to talk about many issues on a daily basis. “It’s very important that I be a strong manager, and that we continue to develop a strong department by hiring the right people with the right skills to serve the business well,” Hicks says. In crafting his legal team, made up of approximately 45 lawyers and 30 supporting members, Hicks has looked for engaged individuals who love what they do and want to broaden their skill base. He is leading an organization with evolving needs, but realizes that doesn’t always mean replacing internal lawyers. “I believe it can be very motivating to equip existing associates with new skills,” he explains. Presently, regulated business is one of Towers Watson’s primary growth opportunities. Hicks is working to identify those in the legal team who are eager to pick up another area of law. “We want people who are inquisitive and curious,” he says. “As the business changes, we must change.” When a hiring need arises, this belief guides his hiring process, as Hicks places a high premium on cultural fit.

Today, Towers Watson’s legal team is located in the United States, United Kingdom, Toronto, Hong Kong, South Africa, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, and elsewhere. The company’s traditional client base consists of Fortune 1000 and equivalent businesses. “Wherever our clients are, we need to be,” says Hicks. In 2013, the legal team brought on a native Mandarin speaker to place in mainland China to handle business in that part of the world. “We have to be equally strong in all parts of the world because our advice must be consistent across the entire organization,” Hicks says. “We have to manage lawyers on a global basis.”

Change is the one constant. You’ve got to be nimble and have a high degree of comfort with change.”

The larger legal department often conducts team meetings with webcasts and conference calls so everyone is hearing the same thing at the same time. Those meetings are frequently recorded and uploaded to a company sharepoint site for future reference, which gives all of the lawyers in the department the chance to learn about legal issues from other parts of the world. Issues like data privacy and security, for example, can often be more effectively examined through a global perspective.

Hicks says that crafting a legal team is never easy, and that it is especially difficult at a company like Towers Watson. “Like any organization, we don’t always get hiring right,” he explains. “It’s not luck, but that’s a part of it. We try to ensure we get the right people on our team by being very deliberate and having many people interact with candidates.”

For Hicks, it’s not just about trying to figure out if the person can do the job—he’s spending time to understand how they think, how they work, and how they respond in certain situations. Hicks goes so far as to give candidates hypothetical situations based on the facts of what actually happens at Towers Watson, asking how they would advise in such a circumstance. Further, each person on legal’s leadership team has veto power over a candidate.

When it comes to motivating and maintaining the team, Hicks says opportunity is key, and the legal team’s guiding belief is that internal members should be willing to learn new areas of the law. “We always want to keep this a great place to work, and I think that our ability to provide opportunities to add skills is a big attraction,” Hicks says, adding that he’s working on increasing opportunities for pro-bono work in part to help drive engagement. Hicks’s leadership style is consultive and collaborative. Managing counsel report to him in a team that operates as a circle of equals.

Currently, the legal function is focused on providing superior value to its internal clients. That’s accomplished with four objectives: being sought after business partners, managing costs, effectively handling litigation, and developing expertise in growth areas. By doing those four things, Hicks and his team will continue to be at the center of what’s happening at Towers Watson.