8 April 2013 | By Becky Waller-Davies
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James Howell-Richardson is flying as global helicopter specialist Bristow’s legal counsel and company secretary
Going in-house is still widely seen as something of an alternative to law firm life - something different to do when private practice starts to lose its sheen. But what if it is all you ever wanted to do?
James Howell-Richardson has only ever worked in-house and, as legal counsel and company secretary for Bristow Group, has just engineered a huge deal for the offshore helicopter company to take over UK search and rescue operations. The 10-year contract for 22 helicopters to operate from 10 locations, worth £1.6bn, is hardly your run-of-the-mill deal.
Ditto Howell-Richardson’s career path. The lawyer himself admits it has been unusual.
“My father is a lawyer so I was pretty determined not to become a solicitor,” he says. “But as time went on I really enjoyed law school and I took a secondment in British American Tobacco, and from then I thought, ‘I want to be an in-house lawyer’.”
After graduating in economics from the University of Exeter in 2001, Howell-Richardson went on to take a conversion course and an LPC under his own steam.
He emailed hundreds of in-house lawyers when he started out.
“About 10 responded,” he reveals. “One asked me to interview, I went along to the interview and they offered me a job.”
The job was in Chester, with Landround, through which members collect journey points and redeem them against flights. Howell-Richardson was there for two years, reporting to the CEO who had hired him. However, he was unable to qualify as he was not supervised by a practising solicitor.
“It was a great learning ground, I was thrown in at the deep end, asked to make decisions and learned a lot - and all while my friends in private practice were proof-reading documents and pushing paper,” he says.
He moved to Monarch Airlines in 2007 and stayed for three years, during which time he qualified, before moving to Bristow in 2010.
For all the difficulties, such as being unqualified despite performing more senior tasks than his qualified peers, Howell-Richardson does not regret taking a less orthodox route.
“I’ve never been in private practice and I wouldn’t change that,” he says. “I’ve learned a hell of a lot and I’ve always been advising people near the top of the organisation. From my first day I was given responsibility and told, ‘bring me a result, that’s all I care about’.”
He attributes his success to his ability to quickly bridge the gap between the multitude of legal options available and the right decision for the business.
“Business people don’t have a lot of time - you have to give them the full picture but make sure you are not overwhelming them so they can’t make a decision,” he says. “It’s a fine balance.”
His solution is simple.
“I tend to present them with what I think is the best option and get them to confirm they are okay with it,” he explains.
Aside from brokering the occasional £1.6bn deal, Howell-Richardson’s day job consists of managing Bristow’s legal operations across 70 per cent of its business.
“Most of our money is made from oil and gas, and the area I’m responsible for is Emea, Asia, Australia and Russia,” he says. “It’s a big area. The challenge is to keep such a big project [the search and rescue tender] running while still doing your day job.”
There are numerous other challenges. The business case for any contract or deal is always at the front of his mind and Howell-Richardson is asked to take risks many in private practice would shy away from.
“There’s a fine balance between knowing how much resource to commit when you don’t know if you’re going to win,” he admits. “You have to behave as if you’re going to win, but make sure you maintain that balance - that you are monitoring your costs.
“I have a better feeling for knowing where risks are and where you should be spending money than a private practice lawyer would. A private practice lawyer would take the least risky option and that would tend to be more costly. So, yes, I think I’m better at analysing where assets need to be put to get the best outcomes.”
The other challenge is the area in which Bristow operates. Howell-Richardson says that, in essence, Bristow is a big taxi company squeezed between manufacturers and oil companies.
“The challenges are not so much legal, more creating bargaining positions with large organisations on either side of you,” he says.
Title: Legal counsel and company secretary
Reporting to: General counsel
Revenue: $2bn (£1.2bn)
Total annual legal spend: £1m
Legal capacity: Four
Alexia Henriksen Senior legal counsel, CHC Helicopter Services (European Operations)
This industry is going through a lot of change. We support the offshore oil and gas market, so things that affect that sector affect us too.
While we were not involved, things such as the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico affect us. Everybody has been watching that case, and the case law that is developing in its wake, closely from a legal perspective. It affects some of the standard terms we would previously have had in our contracts regarding the likes of shared liabilities and indemnities.
Certain patterns and conventions develop over time, but things are now in a state of flux and we are seeing more variation in contracts. Although there is a common industry practice that underpins negotiations, when events like Deepwater Horizon occur everyone takes a closer look at their contracts and assesses whether they have got it right.
This means there is a lot more discussion between industry players putting contracts together. It will be interesting to see how this all beds down.
It is still very much a moveable feast. As a result, we are seeing a bit more deal-to-deal variation than in the past, but that is a case of players trying to regroup and redefine where they should be in terms of their liabilities, based on who is really doing what and who is able to cover certain risks.
It is a challenge for everybody as the goalposts move and until things settle down again people are going to be watching contracts more closely and the debate will continue.