PE teacher: Claire Wilkinson, MVision
04 April 2011 | By Andrew Pugh
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MVision GC Claire Wilkinson lives and breathes private equity, so much so that she is the industry guru on ethics.
Unusually for a general counsel, when Claire Wilkinson joined private equity adviser MVision 16 months ago it was to replace the company’s outgoing chief financial officer.
This helps explain why less than half her workload relates to legal matters. Wilkinson’s role encompasses everything from HR to debt collection and fee structures.
It helps that before she began to train as a lawyer at Slaughter and May in 1990 Wilkinson was an accountant at Helix Software Consultants. Unlike many lawyers, Wilkinson is “not afraid of things like [Microsoft] Excel”.
Neither is she afraid to juggle a workload that would have lesser lawyers reaching for the bottle, thanks to her involvement with a plethora of industry associations.
Wilkinson is a member of the European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association’s (EVCA) professional standards committee; chairs the EVCA’s responsible investment working group; and was recently invited to join the British Venture Capital Association’s responsible investment advisory board.
In a world where private equity placement agents are increasingly under the regulatory spotlight, Wilkinson literally wrote the book on the industry’s ethical conduct.
The code of conduct she authored on placement agents has been adopted by numerous private equity associations, including the influential Institutional Limited Partners Association.
“I don’t believe in just doing your day job - you get to a certain level where you feel you have to start contributing something to the industry,” she says. “I’m lucky to have a supportive CEO.”
Having such a close involvement with the industry has advantages for Wilkinson and her clients.
“It’s a virtuous circle,” she says. “The more you contribute to the industry, the more you know what issues are on the horizon.”
Throw in the fact that Wilkinson is also a single mother of three and you could be forgiven for thinking she is either a workaholic or a glutton for punishment. In fact, the wonder of modern technology means she is able to strike a good work-life balance.
Wilkinson, who describes her children as “BlackBerry-tolerant”, believes it would be almost impossible to do her job without such technology. She also credits it as being a tool for promoting gender equality.
“I can often down tools in work at 5.45pm, go home and see the children and then do some work when they’ve gone to bed,” she says. “One of the best things that’s happened for equality and diversity in the UK is the invention of the BlackBerry.”
Her wide-ranging role at MVision is a juggling act in itself.
“What we essentially do is help private equity houses to raise funds, and that’s a pretty complex and dynamic process,” she explains. “It’s a bit like taking a company through an IPO, but there’s no road map so there are a lot of spinning plates. Clients can include those coming to the market for the first time.”
With her legal hat on, Wilkinson - one of four members of MVision’s management team - covers matters such as contract agreements, fee structures and terms of engagement.
She also oversees her clients’ relationships with law firms, working with the likes of Clifford Chance, Debevoise & Plimpton, Kirkland & Ellis and SJ Berwin.
“I’ll work on any client-law firm interface issues,” she reveals. “For example, I recently had a client who wanted to get advice on what interaction they could have with a journalist in a fundraising period. My job is make sure law firms understand precisely what advice clients want.
“I’ll also help when a new client asks for a beauty parade of firms. If you’re not used to the legal market in the UK you won’t know how to approach it.
“I’ll also intervene if a client feels a firm is being slow, which does happen every now and then. By stepping in, it stops a minor point becoming a major development. I do anything I can to help facilitate the deal.”
In 2003 Wilkinson founded the Private Equity Lawyers Forum, which now has 200 members across Europe and the US.
“A lot of private equity general counsel are working on their own or in small legal teams and this is an opportunity for them to see what other lawyers are doing,” she says.
It is also an opportunity for lawyers to share best practice when it comes to keeping on top of the ever-expanding regulation of the sector following the global financial crisis.
Her advice to lawyers in this area is to cut out the middleman and go straight to the source.
“Don’t be afraid to read the legislation,” stresses Wilkinson. “Every firm produces alerts - it’s often a way of scaring clients to make them want to instruct you. You should trust yourself and not the commentary.”
Name: Claire Wilkinson
Sector: Private equity
Position: General counsel
Reporting to: CEO Mounir Guen
Main external law firms:For MVision – Baker Hostetler, Travers Smith.
For client work – Clifford Chance, Debevoise & Plimpton, Kirkland & Ellis,