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Amazon Announces 2 New HQs: How to Manage a Dispersed Department


Photo credit: Ken Wolter/Shutterstock.com

This story has been updated from an earlier version with additional information after confirmation of the company's choice of headquarters would be split between Crystal City, Virginia, and Long Island City, New York.

Amazon is splitting its newest headquarters between Long Island City, New York, and Northern Virginia, the company confirmed on Tuesday, dispersing its growing workforce.

The company announced that it would invest $5 billion and create more than 50,000 jobs among the two new headquarters, and announced Nashville as a new operations center with more than 5,000 jobs.

While Amazon's search for a second (and, as it turns out, third) home base was one of the more public examples of companies' diversifying geographically, the tech giant is not the only company to open large offices away from its original HQ. For many general counsel, having a dispersed workforce and legal team is the new norm.

"Companies are much more global today and more likely to have non-U.S. offices and want to have legal support in those spaces," said Jason Winmill, managing partner at legal department consulting company Argopoint. "So the geographical fragmentation of legal departments is here. It's in full swing. It's a reality, and many, many legal departments large and small grapple with that."

Winmill said the transition from a centralized to dispersed legal department isn't always an easy one. If not managed well, different offices could have different cultures and feel disconnected and isolated from the rest of the organization.

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Expressing shared goals for department culture and management structure may help with that challenge. Nancy Jessen, the senior vice president of legal business solutions for UnitedLex said a good place to start is ensuring that legal staff in each office use the same titles for the same roles and follow the same promotion criteria.

She also said it's beneficial if team members and leadership roles can be spread among offices.

"You can't have one location be considered the 'good location' and everyone else is an outpost," Jessen said. "Say we distribute our leadership, we distribute teams to force that interaction as well, because otherwise it becomes the land of the haves and have-nots."  

Legal teams can also take advantage of available technology to communicate with colleagues in other locations. Jessen said online messaging, video conferences and even phone calls are ways to bridge the gap between locations.

But meeting in-person always helps. Maureen Brundage, currently a senior adviser at BarkerGilmore, said making time to meet legal staff in person is a crucial way GCs and chief legal officers can create a departmentwide culture.

Brundage was previously the executive vice president, general counsel, corporate secretary and chief ethics officer of Chubb Corp., leading a legal team of more than 135 people spread around the globe. Every other year, she said legal staff from every location would gather at the company's headquarters in New Jersey.

Legal team members from Asia, Latin America and Europe were able to meet businesspeople at the company and their U.S.-based department colleagues during a series of multiday meetings.

Brundage said she also made a point to travel and visit various office locations around once a year. This, she said, is a helpful way for legal leaders to learn about what's going on companywide, directly or through reports. It also allowed her to speak with those in other offices about the value legal adds.

"Make sure people are feeling a part of the whole and not feeling isolated," Brundage said. "As well as that you really know what's going on with your team around the world."

Read more:

With the Planned HQ2, Is Amazon’s Legal Dept. Coming to a City Near You?