Colin Armstrong

Abigail Townsend meets Colin Armstrong, a lawyer who turned down partnership for life in-house.

Colin Armstrong, Northern Leisure’s new head of legal affairs, knows what life is like on both sides of the fence.

He began his career working in private practice, but when he was offered partnership at Berwin Leighton in 1997, Armstrong decided to opt for life as an in-house lawyer.

“It was not a difficult decision – going in-house felt very natural,” he says.

That decision led him to become head of legal affairs and group company secretary at National Express, where he remained for three years before taking on his new role at Northern Leisure (The Lawyer, 17 January).

And Armstrong is adamant that he would not go back to private practice, unless, he says: “I really needed the money.”

He is also convinced that some of the best lawyers will eventually make the move in-house earlier and earlier in their careers.

He says: “People go in-house, tell their chums and so it grows. When I was training it was definitely a second class career choice but by the time I got to Ashurst Morris Crisp it was not.”

Armstrong, a softly spoken Scot, trained at Dundas & Wilson in the late 1980s before joining its corporate department.

Had he not met his girlfriend while studying law at Edinburgh University he would still be practising in Scotland. But he followed her to London, got married and secured a post at Slaughter and May in 1990.

It was there that the seeds of discontent with private practice were sown.

He says: “I am not sure if Slaughters has a particular type of person who works there but I did not enjoy it. It was not that I was working too hard, but the type of work was just not fulfilling me.”

He moved to Ashurst Morris Crisp, “a small firm but with a fantastic client base”, in 1993 before partnership at Berwin Leighton was offered to him four years later.

At that point he took a step back and decided to investigate the possibility of working in-house, which led him to National Express.

For Armstrong the benefits of working in-house include being head of a department with a close relationship with the chief executive and having the ability to influence decisions.

And it is also a matter of being appreciated. He says: “As a lawyer you are valued more by non-lawyers than by lawyers. Being a large fish in a small pool is quite attractive.”

As a former private practice corporate lawyer, Armstrong should know. He adds: “It’s much nicer to be the person receiving the documents at 9am rather than the person who drafted them overnight.”

From a man who, if he was not a lawyer, would have read music and then made grandfather clocks for a living, it is not surprising that he did not feel at home in the cut and thrust corporate department at Slaughters.

One industry source says: “He is a very personable sort of chap and is a good motivator of staff, but is also a very highly-skilled lawyer.”

Even the idea of never being a partner and therefore missing out on the financial rewards the position can bring was not a concern.

He believes that in-house now rivals at least salaried partner status in terms of remuneration and that this trend can only increase.

He says: “I think it is fair to say that the financial rewards for most in-house lawyers would be less than they might have expected as partners in a major City firm.

“But the remuneration packages on offer in-house have improved a lot over the years. Companies are recognising they need the value of senior lawyers and they in turn are recognised as senior members of the management team.”

As the head of an in-house department, Armstrong is also in a position to exercise his managerial responsibilities – more so than if he was a partner in private practice.

In fact one of Armstrong’s first jobs at Northern Leisure will be building up the legal department.

While he admits it is early days, he says he wants to implement a mix of company secretaries and lawyers in the department.

On a wider scale, Armstrong says the group has an aggressive expansion plan which will predominantly be achieved through acquisition.

He says that as and when companies are brought into the group, the current panel, which is made up of Ashursts and niche Hull practice Gosschalks, could increase.

While there are a lot of changes ahead, Armstrong remains emphatic about one point – he will stay in-house for the rest of his working days. “People feel when they move in-house that they are in control of their life,” he says.

And even partnership at Berwin Leighton could not better that.
Colin Armstrong
Head of legal affairs
Northern Leisure