In line with the ‘never knowingly undersold’ slogan, John Lewis Partnership’s GC Keith Hubber needs to know how to add value to the business.
Stepping into the top legal role at one of the high street’s best known brands is no mean feat. For John Lewis Partnership (JLP) general counsel Keith Hubber there was the added pressure of succeeding Margaret Casely-Hayford, who exited in July 2014 to focus on her role as chair of Charity Action Aid UK.
Hubber has come a long way since his days in the Royal Navy. He quit the force in 1990 to take up law, joining legacy Taylor Joynson Garrett (now Taylor Wessing) before a stint on secondment in-house tempted him to make the move permanent. Before joining JLP as general counsel and company secretary Hubber was deputy general counsel at FTSE 100 company BG Group.
“The great thing about being in-house is the sheer breadth of work,” he says. “The issue with the bigger firms is that they’re getting ever-more specialised. When I look back at BG Group it was always about having different challenges and giving people the opportunity to do completely different things.”
Hubber enjoys a challenge. Since joining JLP in January 2015 he has overhauled the in-house team structure and recently completed a panel review. However, there is no time to sit still: he talks repeatedly about how to get the best value from his team.
His client base is vast. JLP, which is the parent group to both John Lewis and Waitrose, is employee-owned with 94,000 ‘partners’. That means there is a Partnership Board and Partnership Council to answer to as well as an executive board.
Added to that, John Lewis Partnership and John Lewis are listed on the London Stock Exchange, so as company secretary Hubber is responsible for overseeing compliance at both entities as well as organising board meetings.
He does all this with a team of just 16 lawyers between John Lewis and Waitrose, who are supported by up to five paralegals and secondees.
It is little wonder Hubber is looking for ways to get the best from his team.
Keith Hubber, John Lewis Partnership
Title: General counsel and company secretary
Reports to: Sir Charlie Mayfield, chairman, John Lewis Partnership
Number of employees: 88,700
Size of legal team: 16 lawyers (32 in total including paralegals, trainee secondees and support staff)
Annual legal spend: Undisclosed
Business support function
In July, Hubber finalised the reorganisation of the in-house team. The department had been organised along practice lines broken into groups that included real estate, commercial and employment. In an effort to bring his lawyers closer to the business he reshaped it along trade divisions.
“We’re in the middle of recruiting so each trading division will have its own team,” Hubber says. The in-house team also supports the Group and Partnership Services group.
The reorganisation, he says, “allows the function to focus on one division and really get to know the business”. One of his core aims is to make the team more visible: that includes initiatives such as open-plan working, getting people away from their desks, visiting stores and talking to partners on the ground.
“Within the partnership it’s all about relationships,” he says. “Our lead lawyers are working hard to build relationships and get ahead of the issues. We want to get away from being a central function to being a business support function.”
To that end, Hubber is working out where best the team can “demonstrate value” in the business. “We’re making sure that we have better communication and information from the board,” he says. “We need greater visibility on the projects within the business plan, so the legal team can understand projects coming down the track.
“You have to be able to balance that with the daily routine.”
Central to that is the recent panel review, which has seen four firms added to the roster.
A key question for the firms pitching for a panel place was how they could add value to the business.
The panel has been cut from “a number” (Hubber won’t disclose how many), to just four, including Slaughter and May as the central corporate adviser.
“We had eight firms in for interviews,” he says. They were expected to pitch to Hubber, his team and the in-house procurement team and asked to demonstrate how they could add value to the team, including billing methods and how they were willing to work collaboratively.
In terms of ‘value-added’ extras, being able to provide an advice line as well as secondees were considered bonuses.
“The partnership isn’t immune from external pressures. We have to be cost-conscious”
The end result was that Burges Salmon, Dentons and Eversheds were assigned to the new roster.
“We were very specific about the model we had in mind,” Hubber says. “We wanted a corporate adviser for key strategic issues and corporate governance matters with a panel of two or three for a full range of ‘business as usual’ legal services.”
He believes that in reducing the panel not only has JLP created a competitive tension between the winning firms, but it also benefits from “much closer and longer-term relationships”.
“We’re devising an operating model so we are very clear about how we use those firms and what they can expect from us,” Hubber says. “The partnership isn’t immune from external pressures. We have to be cost-conscious.”
There are no plans in the pipeline just yet, but like his in-house peers Hubber is conscious that outsourcing low-value work would free up the time of his team and help it demonstrate value to the business.
Putting in place clear guidelines about how the panel firms will be used will not only free up the in-house team’s time but will also impact how they work.
Hubber says he wants his team to be more agile.
“The other thing I’m keen to do is be more flexible as to when, how and where they work,” he explains. “You have to balance the demands of the business and home life. People value a degree of flexibility and choice.
“With the right supporting infrastructure the law lends itself to working flexibly and that comes back in increased loyalty.”
January 2015-present: The John Lewis Partnership, general counsel & company secretary
May 2011-November 2014: BG Group plc, deputy general counsel (Group)
November 2007-May 2011: BG Group plc, company secretary
May 2007-November 2007: BG Group plc, acting general counsel
July 2004-May 2007: BG Group plc, chief corporate counsel
1985-1990: Royal Navy Officer