As global general counsel for Bank of America Merril Lynch Commodities, Mark Elliott believes that lawyers need to get their hands dirty and get involved with their product.
Mark Elliott has a passion for commodities, which probably helps when you are global general counsel for Bank of America Merrill Lynch Commodities, one of the world’s leading trading companies.
“I started life as a general corporate lawyer then went into securities, and have always been interested in the commodities markets,” he explains. “Everyone needs commodities; we all need to turn the lights on and to fire up our cookers. What’s interesting is that every commodity has different physical properties, which in turn raises a number of different legal matters. In many ways the commodities market is like a mirror for how the wider economy is doing.”
Elliott was formerly Entergy-Koch Trading’s head of legal for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. After it was acquired by Merrill Lynch in 2004 the business became Merrill Lynch Commodities; Elliott took up his current role when Merrill Lynch was acquired by Bank of America in 2009.
The company is now involved in nine different physical commodities – including natural gas, crude oil, coal and emissions – operating in 95 different jurisdictions.
The merger presented Elliott and his team with numerous challenges when he found himself heading up a team of 22 lawyers across offices in London, Houston and Singapore. One of the biggest tasks was how to make the three offices work as one. Elliott was also the first general counsel to be based in London, with previous holders of the role having been based in Houston.
“I enjoy working as a team player and trying to fuse 22 people into a global team has been a big driver,” he says. “Previous general counsel had always been based in Houston, but my vision has been to turn us into a global group of lawyers.”
Despite the offices being thousands of miles apart, Elliott insists this presents few problems.
“The distance doesn’t create too many difficulties, though we do tend to have conversations at odd times of the day,” he says. “I suppose it’s helped by the fact that I’m based in London, which is fairly equidistant between Singapore and Houston. Commodities are global products, which means I can be on a call with Singapore talking a lawyer through a transaction, work with senior lawyers in London for three to four hours, then take a call from Houston on general US regulatory initiatives. It can be a long day, but it’s enjoyable.”
Elliott likes his lawyers to have strong corporate and commodities experience, something he certainly does not lack himself. Before joining Entergy-Koch Trading, he was head of legal at securities broker Nikko Europe, before becoming assistant general counsel at Enron European’s commodities arm. Two of his current London-based lawyers are former traders, while another colleague in the company’s Houston office is an ex-investment banker.
“It’s very difficult to find these people, but while not essential, it’s useful if someone has a commercial background,” says Elliot. “I have a very strong belief that in-house lawyers shouldn’t be viewed as backroom staff; we need to understand the product side in detail and become partners in the business. That’s why we like to have our lawyers spend as much time out on the trading floor as possible – to get a sense of the context in which they provide advice to clients.”
Elliott works with a large number of outside firms, although the company does not have a formal panel. It instead prefers to work with firms that specialise in particular commodities in different parts of the world.
“We deal in so many jurisdictions and that’s always a challenge,” he adds. “The most important thing is that the firms we work with understand the markets we’re dealing in. The market in Australia, for example, is very different to those in the US, France and Belgium. We’re looking for specialists in those particular areas.”
Merrill Lynch Bank of America Commodities has only two lawyers based in Singapore, but Elliott says the group is keen to step up its investment in the region and that number is likely to rise over the next few years.
It is unlikely his working day will be getting shorter any time soon.
Name: Mark Elliott
Company: Bank of America Merrill Lynch Commodities
Position: Global general counsel, commodities
Industry: Commodities trading, origination and sales
Global legal capability: 22
Main external law firms: Allen & Gledhill (Singapore), Ashurst, Berwin Leighton Paisner, Blake Dawson (Australia), Fried Frank Harris Shriver
& Jacobson, Holman Fenwick & Willan, McDermott Will & Emery, Norton Rose, Sullivan & Cromwell, Sutherland Asbill & Brennan
Mark Elliott’s CV
1982-85: LLB, King’s College London, University of London
1985-86: Inns of Court School of Law, barrister, Lincoln’s Inn
1990: Solicitor (as a bar transferee), College of Law, London
1988 -91: Bar transferee then solicitor, Mundays Solicitors
1991-94: Solicitor, Rooks Rider
1994-98: Head of legal Emea, Nikko Europe
1998-2001: Assistant general counsel, Europe, Enron Europe (commodities)
2001-present: Head of legal, EMEA, Entergy-Koch Trading (commodities), then global general counsel, Bank of America Merrill Lynch Commodities