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Heart of the action

14 July 14

Take an in-house role and you could end up as Group company secretary and general counsel of a FTSE 100 company

by Malcolm Wood

What was the career path to your current position?

I was an apprentice and assistant with Brodies, assistant at Herbert Smith and then assistant at Burness, where I became a partner in 1985. I joined Standard Life as director of legal services in 2001 and became Group company secretary and general counsel in 2004. I was the Group’s first general counsel and was closely involved in its demutualisation and initial public offering, which completed in 2006. This was the biggest transaction of my career and the fifth-largest IPO in the world in 2006. I have been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time, and I have worked with great people.

How large is your in-house legal team and how is it structured? How much input do you have in group business strategy?

In the UK & EU, we have about 80 people, most of whom are based in Edinburgh, with smaller teams in Germany and Ireland. The UK team is divided into two: Group Legal supports the main business areas such as pensions and investments etc; the smaller General Counsel’s Office consists of corporate lawyers, who get involved in strategic transactions such as the £390 million acquisition of Ignis Asset Management, announced in March. We also have legal teams in Canada and Hong Kong. I sit on a number of senior committees including the group executive team, which reports to and advises our CEO.

What is a typical working day for you?

My work is varied and I am never really off duty. It can involve long hours and a lot of travel, but it is always interesting and often exciting to be at the heart of a company like Standard Life plc, which plays such an important role in many people’s lives.

What gets you started on a Monday morning?

I like the variety which my work involves, and the people I work with. Standard Life is a complex, international business and there are always interesting issues to deal with. I’m not much good at being bored, so this kind of job suits me very well.

What was the biggest change when you moved in-house?  What do you really enjoy about working in-house?

In private practice, I was successful by being an expert in my field, corporate law. When I took up my position with Standard Life, I realised I had to lead a team, none of whom were corporate lawyers, who knew more about their own specialist areas than I did. It was a light-bulb moment when I realised I could add a lot of value by leading the team to use their talents in the best way to serve Standard Life and deliver a better result, without having to know more about their specialist areas than they did. One thing I used to enjoy in private practice was the process of pitching for business from new clients. These days, I sit on the other side of the table. Using the in-house team as much as we can makes a lot of sense for us, but we use external lawyers on a regular basis.

What makes a good in-house lawyer? What’s your career advice for young lawyers?

Understanding what the business imperatives and risks really are for the company, working closely with business colleagues and communicating advice to them in a way that works best for them. Physical stamina helps, as we sometimes have to work antisocial hours. I think it is a good idea to get some private practice experience, as part of our in-house job is managing relationships with external law firms and it helps to understand how they work from the inside.

What do you look for when you get external legal advice? How do you see the in-house/external legal relationship changing?

Broadly speaking, we look for the same things in internal and external legal advice – knowledge, experience, commerciality, conciseness, focus, as well as commitment, clarity and timeliness/speed of response. The X factor is less easy to describe, but we always know it when we see it. It’s about communication and how easy it is to work with the outside lawyers. We work with some very good firms. If there is ever a problem, we can take it up with them and discuss the issue. Indeed, our law firms prefer us to pick up the phone so that we can work out a solution as quickly as possible. In the past, companies communicated with their external lawyers on important deals via their CEOs or CFOs, and this is now generally done via their general counsel. There has been a general perception in recent years that it was a buyer’s market for legal services, and law firms may have felt under constant pressure to deliver more for less. I personally believe in good value and long-term relationships, which work for the law firm as well as the client. We depend on a flourishing legal profession.

What are the current hot legal topics in your sector?

The winds of regulatory change have been blowing in the UK long-term savings and investment markets, particularly the pensions area, with significant knock-on effects for the Group Legal teams. Scotland’s referendum raises more legal issues and, as a Scottish-based international business, we have to take this potential change seriously and spend time on business contingency planning.

How does the future look for in-house legal teams in your sector?

The future is bright and I think that in-house legal teams in financial services will play an increasingly important role as companies have to deal with growing volumes of work and the complexities of legislation, regulation and governance. We do not charge VAT on our already very competitive in-house hourly rates, and this is a major cost saving to the business, when compared to taking external legal advice.

What sort of involvement do you have with the Standard Life plc AGM?

As Group company secretary, I am responsible for organising our AGMs, shareholder notices and communications, and have to be prepared to deal with any practical issues on the day. I have an excellent team that has a lot of experience of handling all aspects of this event. We regularly plan for any issues that may happen, such as a fire evacuation, illness during the event etc. I sit beside the chairman on the stage and hope that it all goes well, but at the back of my mind are the contingency plans to deal with issues that might arise.

Why does Standard Life group take on placement students, trainees and secondees?

Taking on trainees is an excellent way of recruiting talented lawyers for the future. At the end of a traineeship, we know the young lawyers well and many of them get permanent places with us. We receive applications from highly qualified people, with considerable personal abilities and skills. We look to develop these abilities and skills.

How do you think in-house lawyers today are perceived among the wider legal profession?

Some private practitioners (probably including me) may have had the idea that working in-house was easier or somehow less important than working in private practice, but this is certainly not true now, if it ever was. In-house teams work very hard and are involved in difficult issues and demanding deadlines. We have time recorded for 10 years in Standard Life, which helps to quantify our involvement and demonstrate the contribution made by the in-house legal team.

What keeps you busy outside the office?

At this time of year, my garden keeps me busy, and I enjoy most outdoor activities. My ideal holiday is trekking or sailing, ideally in good weather, with good company, food, wine and music in the evening.

What one thing would you want to have on a desert island and why? What one thing would you put in Room 101 and why?

A good pair of binoculars would be very useful on a desert island. I would put passwords in Room 101. I understand the reason for them, but their multiplicity is a concern, and I would like to think that we could be password-free eventually.

Questions put by Graeme McWilliams, legal adviser, Standard Life and In-house Lawyers Group committee member

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