An Attorney with a Value-Add

Heidrick & Struggles’ General Counsel Kamau Coar finds ways to contribute to the business beyond the bounds of most lawyers

Leaders of global corporate recruiting and consulting firm Heidrick & Struggles monitor business trends garnered from an unexpected source: the legal department. Led by Kamau Coar, general counsel, the legal team spearheaded a project to collect and analyze data from client engagements. Now analysis of that information is building on the firm’s sixty-five-year legacy as Coar’s team moves beyond legal advice into strategic analysis for the future of the multimillion-dollar organization.

Since emerging in Chicago in 1953, Heidrick & Struggles has spent decades optimizing thousands of leadership teams and cultures around the world. Yet the provider of executive recruitment and development services is also making moves internally to optimize its own efficiency, thanks to Coar. Recently, his legal team has streamlined client contracts so that far fewer standard agreements need the attention of lawyers. That action led to a significant reduction in both the number of contracts requiring approval by Heidrick’s legal department and the average time it takes to do so, from just under three days to less than one day.

Many general counsels aspire to make such substantial impacts on business strategy and operations, but given all of their responsibilities overseeing a legal department, most have limited opportunities to do so. Coar is an exception. Taking charge of matters not traditionally advanced by lawyers is Coar’s modus operandi. He has used a wealth of available data to identify areas where the legal team can help business leaders make better decisions and better serve customers.

Kamau Coar Heidrick & Struggles
Kamau Coar, Heidrick & Struggles

“We have been trying to move closer to the business so that we are not just reactively giving advice to the questions posed, but also giving proactive information and tools,” Coar says. Part of his strategy has been to study data gleaned from the 4,000 to 5,000 contracts the company forms with international clients each year. Information such as the terms clients use to describe traits they desire in managerial candidates yields clues about business trends that impact Heidrick & Struggles’ services, according to Coar.

In today’s rapidly changing business world, the attributes needed to succeed in some newly formed positions are still being defined. “For example, we have seen an uptick in the number of clients that want to access diverse talent,” Coar says. “By taking a proactive stance on what diversity means in the markets we serve, Heidrick & Struggles can identify and access diverse talent earlier and more efficiently, ultimately reducing the amount of time it takes to help its clients select the best talent for their organizations.”

Heidrick & Struggles’ client engagements most often kick off with a standard letter of agreement delineating the terms of service. Recognizing the terms where clients frequently sought clarity or negotiation, as well as those terms which were not necessary to articulate each sides’ legal obligations, Coar and his team rewrote the standard agreement.

The length of the standard letter was cut from nine pages to three pages, Coar adds. Legal also created an annotated explanation of the standard agreement. Those explanations—like CliffsNotes—have been distributed to consultants who refer to them in client negotiations. The result has been a more efficient process. Now, in many cases, bargaining between a client and Heidrick & Struggles can be handled by business people without the need for legal to weigh in. “We were able to cut in half the number of engagements where legal has had to approve contract terms,” Coar says.

Coar’s team has also partnered closely with internal human resources in the development of a standard methodology to improve performance of the company’s more than 400 consultants. The effort provided rules and parameters to raise the performance of struggling employees and allow the firm to reward those who meet or exceed expectations. The initiative has helped foster more transparency in employee evaluations, performance improvement plans, and create a better decision-making process guiding which consultants are promoted to partner. This, in turn, has aided managers and made the process fairer to all.

The legal function, too, has been a subject of Coar’s streamlining focus. His team has analyzed its use of outside counsel, looking for issues that repeatedly prompt outside spending. Knowledge from these actions has been captured and distributed throughout the global legal team, enabling more matters to be handled internally.

“From a spend perspective on outside counsel, we’ll probably break even this year,” Coar says. “But we’ve seen a significant decrease in certain spend areas where we know the questions have been raised previously, and the knowledge base across the legal department is much greater now.” Early indications point to reduced spending on outside counsel in the coming years. Coar has also consolidated the number of law firms the company works with, an action that ensures those firms will continue to see a steady workload from Heidrick & Struggles even if the overall need for outside counsel wanes.

Coar applied his analytical approach to his department’s organizational structure, as well. Historically, the legal department was organized with most lawyers at the Chicago headquarters specializing in certain roles augmented by a team of generalists distributed around the globe. He has begun to assign specific roles to his team according to experience and acumen, regardless of location. A lawyer in London, for example, will be the company privacy expert. Another in Chicago will be the point person for making the client experience more efficient. “Before, that was everybody’s responsibility, which meant that it was nobody’s responsibility,” he says.

Looking ahead, Coar aims to continue taking proactive steps beyond the traditional purview of the legal department to advance the legacy of innovation at Heidrick & Struggles.

Photo by Tina Smothers Photography


Jones Day congratulates Kamau Coar on his well-deserved recognition by Profile magazine. We applaud his innovative leadership and practical, problem-solving approach. We value our relationship with Kamau and Heidrick & Struggles and look forward to our continued collaboration.