The award for GC of the Year, sponsored in 2020 by FTI Consulting, always throws up a fascinating list of in-house talent and 2020 is no exception. The nominees this year span the worlds of finance, travel, education, health, energy and more.

Natasha Lewis was University College London‘s first in-house lawyer. Now its director of legal services, she has built a legal function is responsible for the provision of advice across an organisation of more than 13,000 staff and 38,000 students, with turnover exceeding £1bn.  

Lewis and her team have had to grapple with a complex and dynamic landscape that straddles the public, private and charitable sectors, as UCL undergoes its own programme of transformation. The past 12 months have seen HEIs needing to register with a new regulator, the Office for Students and grapple with the implications of Brexit. All of these changes have required thoughtful and relevant leadership Lewis to help UCL develop strategies for how it operates in changing regulatory environments.

Kristofer McGhee also works in the world of education. As head of legal for The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education he has played a key role in the development of T Levels, the flagship initiative of the Government’s reforms to technical education.

Since the Institute’s creation in 2017, McGhee has worked tirelessly to ensure the first T Levels are approved – on time – all while diplomatically managing the relationships with the Department for Education, Ofqual and other bodies. In the last year he has grown the legal function from one person to five and successfully adapted to the challenges that have arisen in the face of Covid-19.

James Sporle stepped up from general counsel to become group general counsel & company secretary at Just Eat in July 2019, just in time to support the business through a key expansion project: a combination with

Sporle played a critical role throughout the process, providing support, guidance and advice to the board during a complex transaction, and balancing protection of JE’s commercial interests with providing sufficient information to evaluate the transaction in the negotiation process.

He then led the evaluation of the ‘hostile offer’, working with financial advisers and providing high quality information and guidance to the board to enable them to make an informed decision.

Henry Bennett has been a key driver of Babylon Health‘s growth from a $200m UK startup to a $2bn multinational business. He has built an international team of seven qualified lawyers plus a trainee and two paralegals.

During the 2019 fundraise, Bennett co-led a lean internal team to drive a $500m transaction, managing the deal with UK and US counsel to benefit from the time zone of each country to provide around the clock coverage without requiring the UK team to work through the night. This resulted in near-24/7 negotiations and reviews.

Given the involvement of Saudi, Nordic and US investors, he was also pivotal in the management of investor relationships and was key in aligning the interests of investors to an agreed position. To improve efficiency during the transaction, Bennett introduced transparent billing practices and he has further developed this by introducing legal technology to retrospectively drill down into the transaction’s costs to better understand how to maximise efficiency in similar future matters.

Kate Staples of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) led the legal team that helped the CAA to deliver the biggest peacetime repatriation since Dunkirk: the 140,000 people who were repatriated to the UK following the collapse of Thomas Cook, using what was effectively a shadow airline established and run by the CAA for the purpose. The legal team worked 24/7 for over a fortnight on all the legal aspects of the fleet of aircraft to be used, liaising with aircraft operators, lessors, insolvency practitioners and the Official Receiver to ensure that the CAA had a big enough fleet

Staples also put herself on the front line to lead colleagues greeting passengers arriving at Gatwick and helping them with anything they needed to get home safely – a task which saw her win praise from frazzled travellers who welcomed a confident, calm and friendly face.

Andrew Hunter is group GC of Global Risk Partners (GRP). He has overseen a total of 57 acquisitions for the group since 2013, including 17 since 1 April 2019. This period also saw him take GRP through the agreement for sale of a majority stake in the business. As a member of the executive board, his commercial and legal perspective is vital in setting the strategy and shaping the vision of the GRP’s future.

Carlos Pierce is head of strategic legal projects and The Code Programme at mobile services infrastructure company Cornerstone. When the Government introduced the Electronic Communications Code (ECC) in December 2017 it was the biggest change to occur within the industry in over 35 years. Pierce conceived the idea of a Code Programme Team, with a legal and operational remit to deliver change and enhance Cornerstone’s performance through legal strategy. This strategy is based on setting the industry benchmark on how to acquire sites quickly and cost-effectively to roll out the nation’s critical infrastructure. The potential savings to each operator to enable them to improve customers’ mobile experience is anticipated to be in the hundreds of millions of pounds.

Pierce’s vision for the business has helped Cornerstone establish itself as the leading operator driving change in the industry and the key operator making law and driving precedent through the courts.

A barrister by training, Liz Tanner has been with SSE for more than 18 years and leads a team of more than60 lawyers. In the past year, she has played an increasingly visible role in SSE’s delivery on its strategic direction, including successfully implementing SSE’s new operating model, managing and executing a transformational transaction against a background of significant uncertainty, appointing a new legal panel; and navigating significant legal, regulatory and other challenges.

Finally, Royal London general counsel Fergus Speight is a key figure in helping the business achieve its objectives. When Royal London set a strategic priority to become ‘hard to copy’ in its chosen markets.  Speight took the challenge to heart. He established a legal operations team to help facilitate the creation and implementation of a legal team strategy capable of accelerating the delivery of Royal London’s strategic objectives. 

He empowered his team to create a strategy and operating model based on high-level principles, a bottom-up approach that enabled Speight to accelerate the development of leadership and strategic skills among his team members through coaching. And he encouraged the team to identify what they could do uniquely, quickly, and with scale, challenging their thinking to promote diversity of thought.
Andrew Hunter, Global Risk Partners
Carlos Pierce, Cornerstone
Fergus Speight, Royal London
Henry Bennett, Babylon Health
James Sporle, Just Eat
Kate Staples, Civil Aviation Authority (CAA)
Kristofer McGhee, The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education
Liz Tanner, SSE
Natasha Lewis, University College London

The Lawyer Awards is going virtual for 2020! The ceremony, in association with Travelers, will take place online on the afternoon of 3 November. Visit the awards website to register.