Fifty years have passed since the UK charity the Consumers’ Association, now known as Which?, was born out of a Bethnal Green garage in a bid to fight shoddy products, rip-off retailers and dodgy dealers.
Now a champion of UK consumer rights with regard to everything from hairdryers to pensions and legal services, the charity is keen to be regarded as more than just the organisation that tests washing machines.
Of particular note are its major campaigns on financial services, pensions and legal services: the organisation was one of the most tenacious campaigners for the establishment of the Solicitors Regulation Authority in January.
In 2004 the charity also applied to be a special body under the Enterprise Act 2002, which would allow it to bring proceedings for consumer redress before the Competition Appeal Tribunal on behalf of named consumers – an application that was granted in October 2005.
Deborah Prince joined the charity eight months later, taking on the role of head of legal affairs with the brief of “making it a fit-for-purpose department”, she says.
The organisation had been without a formal head of legal for some time, she explains, and her first task was to grow the team to five lawyers, mainly at the two to three year-PQE level.
Prince explains that, while she was at a recruitment disadvantage because of the mammoth salaries offered by City firms, she was able to more than compensate with the offer of a far more engaging working life than one spent doing due diligence for a City firm.
“The downside of work for any charity is that we can’t compete on salaries, but there are some fantastic opportunities to learn and there’s some fascinating work,” she says. “Salaries at firms are going through the roof, but we still had some fantastic applications and it’s a shame we couldn’t take them all.”
Prince will start looking for two more senior hires at partner level next year. She is seeking someone “with the right experience and the right fit,” she says. “Not just someone commercial, but someone looking to create their own profile in the organisation.”
Prince adds that she wants someone with defamation experience and would be prepared to take a lawyer “from any mid-tier firm” such as Baker & McKenzie, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Pinsent Masons, or even Barlow Lyde & Gilbert or Wedlake Bell.
Much of the legal team’s work surrounds publishing, in particular legal issues relating to copyright, defamation and e-commerce, although it is also responsible for dealing with charity law and the legal aspects of Which?’s campaigns, including legal services.
Following the expansion of the in-house team, Prince launched a beauty parade for external counsel for IP and defamation advice last year, appointing Wedlake Bell and South West firm Foot Anstey Solicitors respectively.
Prince is glowing with enthusiasm for Wedlake Bell in particular, describing commercial, IP and IT partner Mike Gardner as “the best lawyer I’ve ever worked with – and I’ve worked with some amazing lawyers”.
Gardner is currently in the process of licensing Which?’s feted Best Buys magazine’s profiles of top-scoring products for use by the manufacruers, and will begin a similar exercise on ‘best brands’ in July.
However, Which?’s other panel firms, such as Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, which is responsible for IT contracts, and Charles Russell, which provides corporate and employment law advice, can rest easy, as Prince is not planning on conducting a full panel review any time soon.
“They’re too time-consuming,” she says. “Doing a beauty parade in any meaningful way takes a long time. You can have a structured way of assessing how people perform when you’re already using them, but you don’t know what they’re really like until you work with them. Beauty parades just make you a better guesser.”
Head of legal affairs
|Title:||Head of legal affairs|
|Sector:||Charity – consumer protection|
|Turnover:||£57.7m for 2006|
|Total number of employees:||350|
|Annual legal spend :||£300,000-£400,000|
|Main law firms:||Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, Charles Russell, Clyde & Co, Foot Anstey Solicitors, Wedlake Bell Barristers’ chambers: 1 Brick Court, Matrix Chambers|
|Barristers’ chambers :||Berwin Leighton -Paisner, Eversheds, Maxwell Batley, Nabarro, Olswang, Pannone, Wragge & Co|
|Deborah Prince’s CV:||