UPFRONT & PERSONAL: A Talk with Steve Harmon, Deputy General Counsel at Cisco Systems

Topics: Client Relations, Corporate Legal, Data Analytics, Efficiency, Legal Innovation, Legal Operations, Upfront & Personal


We continue our monthly feature, “Upfront & Personal”, a column created by Rose Ors that brings “the person behind the title” to the forefront in interviews with some of the most influential members of the legal community.

Steve Harmon, vice president and deputy general counsel for Cisco Systems, spoke recently with Ms. Ors, the CEO and Founder of ClientSmart, about his favorite memories, his passions, and what advice he would give to a newly appointed legal operations officer.

Rose Ors: What is a childhood memory that brings you joy?

Steve Harmon: When I think back to my childhood, some of my best memories were wrenching on cars with my father. He loved working with his hands, and one of his passions was restoring old automobiles. As soon as I was old enough to hold a flashlight, my job was to point the light while my dad worked on a car. I drive a 1963 Corvette and, if necessary, I could tear it down to each individual bolt, reassemble it and drive away.

Rose Ors: How did that time with your father influence you?

Steve Harmon: He gave me a love for working — creating with my hands. Today, I spend a lot of my free time in my woodshop building furniture. Most of the wood furniture in my home I built — everything from trestle tables for the kitchen to long runs of bookcases, to custom closets. To start with raw wood and to cut, shape and assemble it to create something that I can share with my family is very rewarding.

It’s also a passion I share with my wife — she’s built some cool stuff, the latest are some great sliding barn doors. I’ve also had my children “hold the flashlight” while I work. We’ve had some great times in my woodshop.

“The result of my tinkering was to reduce the work that took five lawyers to do in a week, to one lawyer, once a week. Mark [Chandler, Cisco GC] believed that the skills I used to operationalize this area were the skills the legal ops role required.”

Rose Ors: Can you share one story?

Steve Harmon: When my daughter Sadie was five, I decided to build her a bed. She was excited about the project and became my assistant, doing a bit of sanding and cleaning up. While we worked on the bed, all she saw was dad working with a bunch of wood cut into various shapes and sizes. So, when she walked into her bedroom and saw that all that wood was not just any bed, but a two-story castle she spontaneously burst into tears. I will never forget the look on her face.

Rose Ors: Does Sadie still love her castle?

Steve Harmon: I recently told Sadie — she’s turning 12 soon — that whenever she is ready to leave her castle, I’d build her another bed. She looked at me with such earnestness and said, “Dad, I’m taking that bed to college.”

Rose Ors: The perfect answer, Steve.

Steve Harmon: It was perfect.

Rose Ors: What has been one of the most significant moments in your career?

Steve Harmon: It was the day, about a decade ago, when Mark Chandler, my boss and Cisco’s General Counsel, asked me to run the legal department’s new legal operations function. Initially I was skeptical about heading down that road — it was early in my legal career and even earlier for legal ops. But Mark persuaded me that this was important.

Rose Ors: Why did Mark think you would be great in this new role?

Steve Harmon: I had been one of five lawyers supporting Cisco’s procurement group. I didn’t love the work and started to look for ways to do it more effectively and efficiently — hoping to work myself out of a role. The result of my tinkering was to reduce the work that took five lawyers to do in a week, to one lawyer, once a week. Mark believed that the skills I used to operationalize this area were the skills the legal ops role required. Fast-forward ten years and I am still at Cisco, still rethinking and redesigning how our legal department gets work done. Mark was right.

Upfront & Personal

Steve Harmon, vice president and deputy general counsel in the legal department for Cisco Systems

Rose Ors: What are some of your passions and interests?

Steve Harmon: My wife and I love spending time outdoors. Our idea of a great vacation is being very active — cycling, biking, hiking. A few years ago, we cycled across New Zealand. For us a 100-mile bike ride is fun!

As we talked about earlier, I also love to build furniture. I need to get out of my head and work with my hands to produce a physical object. To transform bits and pieces of wood — puzzle pieces — and put them together so they become something beautiful and functional is very satisfying. I don’t consider myself an artist, but I enjoy the creativity in what I do.

Rose Ors: If anything were possible, how would you spend the last year of your life?

Steve Harmon: I would spend every morning with my wife hiking, cycling, canyoneering. I would spend every afternoon in my woodshop building a baby crib for each one of our six children. We are a blended family, so I would need to work feverishly to complete six cribs in a year.

Rose Ors: What gave you the idea for the project?

Steve Harmon: My father built a crib for four of his five children. He died young, so he wasn’t able to finish the last crib. I want to honor him and the tradition he started.

Rose Ors: What advice would you give a newly appointed Legal Ops chief?

Steve Harmon: Learn as much as possible about how things are done in the legal department and the problems they’re trying to solve. Learn about its culture. And do these things before you try to fix anything with technology. It’s very seductive to believe that if you just buy the right tool or tools almost all your problems will be solved. It’s an appealing approach because it presupposes that a problem can be solved by writing a check. It just doesn’t work that way. No one becomes a great golfer because they bought the best golf clubs.

The next piece of advice is to identify small changes to big problems. For example, in a large company, if you can help the lawyers who support your company’s sales team and make that team more efficient by 2%, that’s a huge benefit for the company. It’s a bigger number and more important result than rolling out a knowledge management tool. It’s not to suggest that tools are not important, they just need to be rolled out at the right time to fix the right problem.

This interview has been edited and condensed by Rose Ors.