Bard company

The Royal Shakespeare Company receives pro bono help in the US and its sole in-house lawyer is looking for similar treatment in the UK. By Ben Mitchell

It is rare that the words ‘law’ and ‘high art’ are uttered in the same breath, but at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) the two worlds collide on a daily basis for general counsel Caroline Barnett. After just over a year as the first in-house lawyer at the Stratford-upon-Avon theatre group, Barnett has been faced with legal concerns as diverse as real estate and data protection. She is, though, enjoying every minute of it. “I love the variety, it’s enormous fun,” she confirms.

As the daughter of two professional opera singers and a budding actress herself, fully armed with her own Equity card, the Oxford-educated Barnett seemed destined for a life in the arts.
Instead she emerged as a Slaughter and May-trained IP specialist, later ditching the private practice life in favour of a move in-house. She worked at the London office of Reuters, spending four years dealing with IP and defamation issues, before moving to the RSC last year. Her role has since broken new ground for major theatre companies, which historically outsource their legal work or employ a company secretary to provide basic advice.

Barnett herself uses the London-based Bates Wells & Braithwaite and Wragge & Co, among others. Budgetary constraints mean top-level legal support is rarely a priority, but she is keen to provide a high-grade service to the company. “I’ve been rationalising what we do and trying to reduce the numbers,” she explains. “I have a limited budget so I try to do as much as is humanly possible myself. Sometimes, though, we do need to use City firms for the more heavyweight work.”

A reluctance to outsource work to London firms stems from Barnett’s own experience in the City. She is not convinced that the big firms take arts legal work as seriously as they might.

“Because of our size, I often find that when we work with the top-ranking firms, perhaps we’re often not quite a big enough client to merit top-class, undivided attention,” she explains. “For the most part, I try to use firms in the region,” says Barnett.

However, City expertise has never been more keenly sought than now, with a £100m redevelopment scheme in full swing in Stratford-upon-Avon. Barnett has brought Linklaters on board to advise throughout the long-term project, which is due to be completed in 2008. The RSC’s modest annual legal spend of £40,000 does not include the bill for work on the redevelopment.

The redevelopment, which is 50 per cent Lotto-funded, will see the auditorium at the RSC’s eponymous theatre completely revamped, allowing the audience to be much closer to the action on stage, while the Art Deco features inside will remain untouched.

Further afield, the RSC tours productions across Australia, Europe, Japan and on Broadway, which throws up regular contractual work for Barnett.

Washington DC giant Arnold & Porter has agreed to lay on some pro bono trade-mark work for the RSC in the US, and this is a trend Barnett is keen to continue in the UK.

“Yes, we’re a fairly well-subsidised theatre company, but I’d like to see more offers of pro bono work when it comes to the high-profile projects,” she explains. “Our minuscule budget and wide-ranging work makes us prime candidates for pro bono. Resource is a major issue for us.”

Barnett also sits in on board meetings, which gives her a hands-on role at the RSC and provides the opportunity to provide legal input in an unlikely environment.

She has also launched an inaugural forum for in-house lawyers working in the arts, which should sit neatly in an already heavily unionised industry. “The forum is forging ahead and we’ve had a lot of support for the scheme,” says Barnett. “I wanted an informal network where in-house lawyers could exchange bits of information from within our industry, which can be incredibly intricate. People aren’t used to lawyers in the arts.”

As for the RSC, Barnett is well aware of the changing climate in the West End, and despite a hectic production programme over the next 12 months she is realistic about its market position. “We’re pitting ourselves against big-budget musicals these days and it can be hard to compete,” she admits.

But with a season of Shakespearean tragedies and an upcoming starring role for Vanessa Redgrave, together with the ongoing redevelopment, the RSC seems to have a platform on which to build more success.

Barnett, meanwhile, has a job with perks that most lawyers would envy. “There really is nothing better than going to see a show after a long, frustrating day at work,” she says.
Caroline Barnett
General counsel
Royal Shakespeare Company

Royal Shakespeare Company
Sector Entertainment
Employees 500 (with additional staff on a seasonal basis)
Turnover £37m
Annual legal spend £40,000
Legal capability One
General counsel Caroline Barnett
Reporting to Executive director Vikki Heywood
Main law firms: Bates Wells & Braithwaite, Linklaters and Wragge & Co