Former actor Caroline Barnett has found the perfect role as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s general counsel. Tom Phillips reports.
Caroline Barnett knew she had it made when she won the general counsel role at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). “It was a dream job,” she says.
The job is a world away from her days as an associate at Slaughter and May. An Equity card carrying former actor herself with roles as an extra in The Bill and Casualty, Barnett now takes centre stage as the sole legal player at the renowned theatre company dedicated to the world’s most famous playwright.
Barnett first cut her teeth in-house at a “fun” position working on the editorial side at Reuters almost 10 years ago. However, it was only when she sat at her desk in a converted dressing room at the RSC that she felt truly at home.
“I saw the ad in The Lawyer and if ever there was a job with my name on it, it was this one,” she says. “The position was a way of putting together the two parts of me in a creative environment. If you work in-house then you have to be passionate about what you do: in a theatre company that does Shakespeare, I have the perfect job.”
Barnett describes the RSC as a “cottage industry” and her position as more akin to a corporate in-house lawyer than one may at first suspect. With more than 700 employees and £30m a year in turnover, the projects she works on are varied. There are not many organisations that can claim to have an armoury, after all.
“I get a lot of oddball work that comes up due to the nature of the business,” admits Barnett. Two years ago when she was called on to perform a defamation reading on new play Breakfast with Mugabe, Barnett received a worrying call that the Zimbabwe dictator’s ‘security advisers’ were watching from the front row.
Being the only member of the legal department, Barnett is involved in everything from contract work with new venues and negotiating agreements with the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain, to an ongoing £100m redevelopment of the RSC theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. The breadth of her work ranges from intellectual property to government lobbying to general commercial work.
She has recently written to eBay asking the auction website to tackle the growing problem of people selling play tickets at inflated prices. Tickets for Hamlet, starring David ‘Doctor Who’ Tennant, were going for as much as £800 online, while the RSC deliberately keeps prices low to attract a diverse audience.
“We’re trying to encourage the Government to earmark tickets for 12-to-15-year-olds at £5 each,” she adds.
When The Lawyer met Barnett she was in the midst of working with a member of the RSC lighting team to market and patent a new piece of kit, dubbed the ‘RSC LightLock’.
“As a charity we’re interested in anything that could make us money and we’re working on a tender package for commercial partners,” she says.
Being the thespian’s theatre company of choice has its advantages. At a recent trade show the LightLock inventors called on none other than RSC honorary associate artist Patrick Stewart for help, with Stewart duly recording a promotional ad that was played at the RSC stand.
In the unlikely event that Barnett needs external legal help, she calls on Bates Wells & Braithwaite for theatre and entertainment work, Foot Anstey for employment, Wragge & Co for property and Linklaters, which recently supported the theatre transformation project.
Firms do sometimes offer pro bono help, not least because Barnett has set up the Arts Law Forum, a 16-member informal group of lawyers, producers and business developers – including workers from the Royal Opera House and Southbank Centre – who hold seminars with law firms.
“We work on a limited budget and often there isn’t specific training for people like us,” says Barnett. “We don’t have colleagues so it gives us an opportunity to discuss issues that come up. Sometimes the law firm will come away with something.”
For all her projects, there is one thing Barnett has not yet achieved – The Two Noble Kinsmen. The last play is attributed to Shakespeare (and Fletcher) and is the only one that Barnett has not seen performed. It is the last gap to fill before she has the complete works.
Name: Caroline Barnett
Organisation: Royal Shakespeare Company
Reporting to: Executive director Vikki Heywood
Company turnover: £30m
Total number of employees: 700
Total legal capability: One
Main external law firms: Bates Wells & Braithwaite, Foot Anstey, Linklaters, Wragge & Co
Caroline Barnett’s CV
1985-88: Oxford University
1991-92: University of Westminster
1992-93: College of Law, Lancaster Gate
Work history: 1993-95: Trainee, Slaughter and May
1995-99: Assistant, Slaughter and May
1999-2003: IP counsel, Reuters
2003-present: General counsel, Royal Shakespeare Company