The Lawyer Summit Blog
6 November 2009
The cream of the in-house community are in Barcelona sharing experiences. We report on the buzz.
In-house Summit, Barcelona, Friday 6 November, 3.27pm
The final session has just come to an end and there are some extremely tired delegates hoping to catch 40 winks before the partying can begin again this evening.
Fortunately Centre Parcs company secretary Raj Singh-Dehal was able to capture the attention of a weary audience with his engaging talk on how his board is dealing with the prospect of litigation in a downturn.
Perhaps you wouldn’t expect Centre Parcs to be the target of much litigation, but, according to Singh-Dehal, there are several websites which divulge details of how to bring a slip and trip claims against the holiday park company.
Apparently for some consumers, bringing a claim is a good way of getting a discounted holiday (who are these people?).
So should the company stand its ground and fight, or should it seek an out of court settlement?
Clearly it depends on the merits of the case, but also, says Singh-Dehal, whether the boardroom wants to be seen litigating with its customers.
Particularly as those customers can drum up negative publicity over the internet.
According to Singh-Dehal, litigation is an unwelcome distraction from the development of Centre Parcs’ core business.
The recession, he says, has changed the way board members respond to claims. Courtroom battles are a costly business and money cannot be wasted. Whether to fight is a critical decision.
A short and sweet session to wrap up the summit, with plenty to discuss at tonight’s black tie dinner.
In-house Summit, Barcelona, Friday 6 November, 1.36pm
“Sometimes I feel that being an in-house counsel is like being a parent.”
So said Suzanne Smith, legal director UK and Ireland at bioscience company Genzyme, during a spot of in-house therapy this afternoon.
Smith received a lot of nodding heads from empathetic lawyers at her session on the lonely life of a sole counsel.
The former Kurt Geiger general counsel now works within a large legal team, giving her the opportunity to reflect on her past experience and the difficult positions in which “constant jugglers” can find themselves.
One of the first rules is to recognise you can’t be an expert at everything.
“I’m a specialist/generalist” she said, likening herself to a GP with a specialism in diabetes or genetic diseases. The rest had to come through delegation or external law firms. Tools like Practical Law Company can be “essential” she added.
Other issues are harder to solve, like finding friends, champions and an identity within an organisation where you may be the only person who knows what TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations) is.
Then there’s the problem of identifying the client: “Is it your boss, the board, the non-executive directors, the shareholders…?”
A sticky situation if you suspect your boss is not acting in the best interest of the company, said Smith.
Murmurs of agreement and anecdotes from the audience backed up the feeling of camaraderie among lawyers who have to fend for themselves.
In-house Summit, Barcelona, Friday 6 November, 10.30am
All the delegates were a bit bleary this morning after networking in the bar last night and a great after-dinner speech on Obama from Justin Webb, former BBC North America editor and now Today presenter.
But there was a great turn-out for the session we were at this morning: BAE Systems’ chief counsel, programmes and support, Roger Wiltshire shared a platform with Keith Schilling and Rachel Atkins, partners from media boutique Schillings, to discuss the implications for corporate reputational risk in the 24/7 media environment.
Wiltshire kicked off with a BAE showreel, which showed company employees waxing lyrical on the ethical policy, health and safety principles and job satisfaction of working at one of the world’s biggest defence contractors.
The showreel was the tail-end of a concerted effort by the company to clean up its act after more than a decade of very public allegations of corruption, bribery and fraud across its international network. BAE has spent enormous time and effort at putting a ethical compliance programme into place, and Wiltshire was remarkably open about the difficulties of restoring corporate reputation. He told how a journalist had said that the perceived media victimisation would stop when the company became boring. “So our mission is to become extremely boring as quickly as possible,” Wiltshire quipped.
If Wiltshire was the good cop, then the Schillings presentation was a pretty clear demonstration of when to go in hard. Rachel Atkins advised in-house lawyers to pick their battles, but both she and Keith Schilling argued that injunctions do work - cue minor discussion around super injunctions. (Carter-Ruck was not mentioned, by the way).
Atkins highlighted the need to take action where investigative journalists use potentially unethical methods such as contacting the children of execs via Facebook to obtain confidential information.
But one member of the audience, who works in recruitment due diligence, underscored the need to be able to access such information in order to carry out his job effectively. Sometimes hostile comments about individuals can be useful in assessing the true picture of somebody’s work history.
In-house Summit, Barcelona, Thursday 5 November, 6pm
At a seminar this afternoon on the new regulatory environment two slightly different pictures emerge of what kind of world lawyers will be working in post-2011. One talks of a world in which firms will be able to float and access new revenue streams. Talent may be released through promotion of support staff to the partnership. Economies of scale and increased competition may provide a better deal for the consumer. And providing that investment is made in legal advice centres by Tesco Law et al – access to justice shouldn’t be curbed. This is broadly the view of The Law Society’s head of legal services Anthony Brooks, who is cautiously optimistic on the subject.
Another envisages a brave new world in which solicitors, estate agents and surveyors all working in the same entity will continue to be regulated by their respective regulators - but the entity itself can choose its own regulator.
Call me cynical, but that does sound a little open to abuse.
“If I were determining that choice I would go for the one that was cheapest and had the laxest approach to regulation,” says Greg Treverton-Jones QC of 39 Essex Street.
So will competition between regulators lead to a race to the bottom? And what will happen to the Solicitors Regulatory Authority - endowed with investigatory powers akin to those of police officers, according to Treverton-Jones?
It turns out that it’s not only the regulators that get involved in investigations.
When Steve Lodge Lyca Mobile head of legal was at Virgin Mobile he did a spot of detective work too.
Lodge’s interest was piqued when one of Virgin Mobile’s major distributors Zavvi stopped selling gift vouchers in the run-up to the busy Christmas period. This was a useful clue as to the likelihood of the chain going under.
Which meant that Virgin Mobile was able to draw up contingency plans which he could implement when Zavvi did collapse on 24 December
In-house Summit, Barcelona, Thursday 5 November, 3pm
My colleague Tom Phillips www.twitter.com/TomP_TheLawyer asked whether there would be the usual hoo-hah about private practice fees at this year’s In-house Summit.
Well, so far the answer is no. This is a pretty astonishing development: most years in-house lawyers get together and launch into a veritable fugue of moans about outside counsel.
Clearly, they’re getting better deals at the moment.But I don’t think that’s the only reason. The creative potential of value-add (horrible phrase) could be enormous.
Take the first session this morning, which was open to in-house lawyers only and led by Eva Bishop of Willliam Grant & Sons and Amber Blake of QVC. They turned the debate on its head, asking: What value can an in-house lawyer add to external counsel? Can an in-house lawyer help a law firm expand its client base? Private practice lawyers would have been surprised at the collaborative opinions expressed; there’s certainly resistance to the slash-and-burn procurement model.
It seems to have struck a chord. I spoke to a delegate from a FTSE company at lunch who was going to present to his external firm about why they should be a client. “It makes you think about things afresh,” he said.
I spent the latter part of lunch helping Kevin Perry of Edwards Angell get onto Twitter. We both got a spot of tech-rage. I don’t think he’ll be tweeting much.