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American Bar Association

ABA Section of Litigation
Corporate Counsel

Interview with Chief Litigation Counsel for McKesson Technology Solutions


Read full trasncript of Yuri Mikulka's interview with Jill Dessalinas here. | PDF


As an outside counsel, I have found that one of the great benefits of the ABA’s Corporate Counsel Committee is the opportunity to hear in-house attorneys share their views on important topics. I recently interviewed Jill Dessalines, who is the chief litigation counsel for McKesson Technology Solutions. A full transcript of the interview can be found here [PDF]. This interview is an example of what makes our committee special, and we’d like to share portions of the interview with you, our members.

What are your responsibilities at McKesson Technology Solutions?
I manage litigation for the company. Last spring, I became the chief litigation counsel for one of our two business units. We have many wholly owned subsidiaries, and we have many business divisions, but they are basically divided into two business divisions: McKesson Distributions Solutions (MDS), which is a pharmaceutical distributions company, and McKesson Technology Solutions (MTS), which is a software company. I am chief litigation counsel for MTS, and I primarily focus on managing litigation for the technology side of the business.

How would you describe your role as chief litigation counsel for MTS?
I give litigation advice to the business unit clients within MTS. I hire outside counsel and devise strategy for the resolution of matters. I manage the relationship between outside counsel and our internal business clients. I handle that from both the substantive strategic level and administratively. I manage budgets, as well as high-level strategy for any case that I’m responsible for.

As chief litigation counsel for the MTS software business, what type of cases and issues keep you busy?
My case mix is primarily intellectual property related, typically patent cases, some trademark cases, trade secret cases, contract issues, and privacy matters. Health care is a very highly regulated industry, and software is an area of the industry in which there are many changes being played out, many boundaries being stretched from the technological side, and then sometimes the legal side has to catch up with the implications of technology. So you have issues of data security and privacy as well as personal health information.

How many lawyers are in your legal department?
Probably around mid-forties. It’s interesting how these lawyers are deployed, because Alpharetta, Georgia, is the headquarters of the technology businesses, and then the corporate headquarters is here in San Francisco. So in Francisco, we have a fairly skinny staff. There might be 15, 16, or so lawyers here, and in a few in other cities, but most are in Alpharetta. The needs of the business units are different: MTS has a heavy need for lawyers and staff to manage the contract load. Because of the sales cycle and because of the number of software products we have, they need to have a lot of people devoted to administering those contracts, and those lawyers and legal assistants are in Alpharetta. One of the things that I also like about managing litigation here is while business unit lawyers are dedicated to their business units, here in the litigation group, we have visibility across the entire company. We’re really one of only a very small number of corporate functions that have that sort of breadth of visibility. I think it’s absolutely crucial to understand what’s going on in all business units to give the finest litigation advice that you can. Our world is getting so much smaller; I think our global financial crisis is a perfect example of that. And as a result, it’s essential to know how you’re going to position yourself, not just based upon what one or two business units are doing, but based on all of the business units that might be involved in an issue.

How will the global financial crisis impact your business?
Well, I think the most immediate way it will impact the business is that because of the tightening of credit, there is a tightening of spending. And that is, many of our software products are geared toward large users, such as large hospitals, and I think that hospital budgets are notoriously stretched. I think there is a disincentive for some to make large capital outlays, and that is one way it will affect our business. Fortunately, the corporation as a whole is very strong. There have been public filings that demonstrate that we are in very good shape financially. But of course, my point about the global financial situation is that nothing that we do is in isolation anymore. Everything has ripple effects that are larger than the actual actors in any given market segment.

Do you take your BlackBerry when you travel?
Sometimes I do. Sometimes I don’t. It really depends on what’s going on in my work life. Mostly, I do, but what I try to do is to be circumspect about what I respond to, so I may be monitoring emails without actually responding because I find that, you know, the electronic world is nefarious. Once somebody knows that you’re actually checking your emails—I don’t care what your Out of Office Assistant says—they know you’re there. I’ve had more than one vacation when I’ve spent half of the day, every day, working. What I try to do is when I’m truly attempting to vacation, I will set time during the day to check messages and try to stay true to that schedule. Obviously, that’s blown out the water if something comes up unexpectedly or if there is some hot case that’s brewing that you’ve got to attend to, but that’s one way to try to keep work from overtaking a vacation.

Do you prefer to be able to reach your outside counsel at all times including on vacations?
I can be a very demanding client, but I don’t think I’m demanding in that way. For example, I don’t demand a home phone number or that you be accessible during your vacation. I think it’s unhealthy to expect anybody’s life to be so one-dimensional that they do nothing but work. But, I have found that many times outside counsel will give you their cell phone numbers and invite you to call them whenever you want. And I usually respect their downtime, so I would only do that during business hours unless there was an emergency. There have been times, however, when I’ve called outside counsel on their cell phone during business hours and been told that they were sitting out on the beach on vacation. I respect outside counsel’s downtime just as I demand that they respect mine. Having said that, there is a big asterisk: that is, you do what you have to do. There are times when it’s better to get away—knowing that you’re going to have to deal with business issues a lot—than it is not to get away at all.

What is your biggest outside counsel pet peeve?
I’ve got more than one. I say the big no-no is lack of responsiveness and lack of communication. I mean, if I were the type of client that calls people at all hours of the day and night, I could see where they might not take my calls all the time, but because I’m not, if I call somebody, or if I send them an email, I expect a response. Preferably that day, certainly no later than the next day. Even if it’s just to say, “I’ll find out for you,” or “I don’t know right now, but I’ll get you that information,” or whatever. Many times, because of my functions of liaison between the internal clients and outside counsel, I’m called upon to answer questions, and if I don’t know the answer to that question, then that puts me in a bad light and adversely affects my relationship with my clients. One of my other favorite sayings for outside counsel is “If you make me look good, I’ll make you look good. If you make me look bad, then we’ve got problems.”

What percentage of your outside lawyers violates that?
Well, over time, the percentage is smaller, because I try to be candid about my requests, and when somebody does violate it, I try to call them out on it. And, most of the time, it’s not repeated a lot, but I’d say there are probably a good 15–20 percent that have that issue. And, I’d say another one is trying to bill every minute of their living and breathing life. Every waking moment has to create a profit. And by that, I mean profitizing. That’s a pet peeve for me. For example, charging for secretarial overtime, or charging for Westlaw service by the minute when you know that you’re paying a flat fee.

Do you communicate that to outside counsel at the outset regarding your expectations?
Absolutely. It’s part of our standard retention agreement and supporting documents. But I find that because of the bureaucracy in law firms, there is often a disconnect between the billing partner and the billing policies of the firm. So, for example, a billing partner might be quite diligent in reviewing the actual time on the pre-bill and making sure it’s appropriate, consistent, and reasonable. But, they are not necessarily looking at all at the add-on costs that have become part of that firm’s policy to pass on to the client. Sometimes it requires repeated messages until you let them know “You need to talk to your billing department about this.” I tell them “You need to decide, as a firm, if this is something that you want to continue to do, because I’m telling you right now, it’s not placing you in a good light, and it’s not making it likely that I’m going to use you again.” You put it like that and most of the time, they will make the change.

Any other pet peeves?
Trying to circumvent me and going directly to the business client when I’ve not authorized it.

Does that happen often?
It has happened in the past, and it’s troublesome, especially because it ignores the nature of the relationship between in-house counsel, outside counsel, and the client. I try to be a trusted adviser to my clients, and when outside counsel attempts to interfere with my relationship with my clients, nothing good can come from that.

What can lawyers do in this economic downturn to provide value to their clients?
Two things: One, you can think of more creative and economical ways to accomplish goals. Because of firm overhead and hierarchy, firms have not always had the incentive to focus on this. Two, be even more mindful and respectful of your budgets and the economic constraints that your in-house counterpart is experiencing, because they are real. I have never before in 24 years of practice had as much pressure to get budgets, update budgets, and stick to budgets in the face of the uncertainties inherent in litigation than I have now. And so, even though we know litigation is fraught with surprises—many of which are outside of your control since you’re only in charge of one of three players of the field (the other two being the judge and the opposing counsel)—you still have to do everything that you can to be clear about what something will cost and try very hard to stick with it as opposed to coming up with the numbers and then forgetting about them as if you never had a budget to begin with. 


—Yuri Mikulka, Former Co-Chair [1]


click here to read full interview | PDF

[1] The committee would like to thank our corporate counsel colleagues for sharing their valuable input for this article.

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