25 January 1999
HSBC Group has a worldwide range of businesses around the world, from UK retail banking, to investment and private banking, treasury and capital markets, fund management, insurance and securities custody. The dozen or more key businesses include Midland Bank, Hong Kong Bank, HSBC Investment Bank, HSBC Bamerindus (Brazil), Marine Midland (US), and the British Bank of the Middle East.
Managing the legal function for such a group demands organisational skills at headquarters in London, as well as in-depth knowledge of its global businesses - which is why lawyers at HSBC can find themselves relocating for spells abroad in locations as diverse as Sydney, Singapore, Hong Kong, New York or Sao Paulo.
Group legal adviser Richard Bennett says: "We want our senior lawyers to have a group perspective, so there is the probability of secondment oversees."
Bennett ran Hong Kong Bank's legal team looking after the Far East, before returning to the UK after 18 years to take up the reins from predecessor Chalmers Carr after his retirement a year ago.
"In Hong Kong, I was used to living only 10 minutes from work. Coming back to London commuting takes a little getting used to," he says.
The 30-strong UK legal team has a dual role in HSBC: handling UK and international matters. British-based activity accounts for some 90 per cent of the work. Regular reporting from the departments in other countries means the London team stays on top of key matters around the globe, be they M&A, litigation cases worth more than £1m, or other sensitive issues that crop up. But the sheer size and diversity of HSBC is a constant challenge, and Bennett is working on improvements.
"My short term goals are to strengthen and deepen relationships across the UK with our clients, by getting our lawyers out to market themselves and to understand the business better," says Bennett.
"Secondly, I want to mould together a more cohesive global legal function. There are matters with a lot of global reach, and I want to improve co-ordination around the world by getting people to talk to each other more."
On a day-to-day basis, the team in the City's Lower Thames Street advise senior management on key issues, deal with queries from account managers across the businesses, and liaise with members in the law firm panels on various matters - including commercial loans, securities custody and large-scale litigation. Apart from monitoring international matters affecting the group, Bennett's team can be dealing with the legal elements of City financial work in corporate finance and foreign exchange trading.
Retail branch managers throughout the Midland retail network tend to use the Birmingham-based team of 19 lawyers, who also handle debt collection matters.
Many of HSBC's lawyers have City backgrounds. Bennett trained in Stephenson Harwood's commercial department, although the firm's place on the panel owes more to tradition - founding partner William Harwood began advising Hong Kong Bank in Shanghai 100 years ago.
"The philosophy has always been to go for generalists rather than specialists, on the basis that our lawyers have to be able to handle anything," says Bennett. "However, the real world doesn't work like that, so people do develop specialisms. We don't have compartmentalisation, but the complexity of transactions means you need people who know what they're doing."
Head of legal
|FTSE 100 ranking||Britain's sixth biggest company (also listed in Hong Kong)|
|Legal function||173 lawyers worldwide|
|Head of legal||Richard Bennett|
|Reporting to||Keith Whitson, group chief executive|
|Main location for lawyers||UK (35 lawyers in London and Birmingham), US, Canada, Argentina, Brazil, Dubai, Greece, Spain, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Australia|
|Main law firms||London panel: Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, Eversheds, Linklaters, Norton Rose, Nabarro Nathanson, Stephenson Harwood. (Also uses regional panel of 13 firms in UK)|