Reluctant hero

DJ Freeman’s new head of corporate Richard Spiller doesn’t know why he landed the role, but Kathryn Hobbs is sure he is the right man for the job

It may be Jubilee year, but forget about that lady from Windsor – 2002 marks the 50th anniversary of DJ Freeman. Head of corporate Richard Spiller has been at the firm for nearly half of those 50 years, having joined in 1983 from Norton Rose. He has been in charge of DJ Freeman’s corporate department for precisely one month, so it is time to find out how he has enjoyed his infant reign.

“It’s too early to say. I’m still trying to find my feet, defining what the role is,” he says. Right, great; I’ll get my coat then, shall I? This clearly isn’t going to be the in-depth probe I’d hoped for. And as I had already been to DJ Freeman’s Fetter Lane office earlier in the day, I knew my way home.

I was due to meet Spiller at 11am. He, being efficient, had called and postponed the meeting, saying that urgent matters had come up. I, being less efficient, listened to the message while standing outside the DJ Freeman building. This comedy of errors was made still more hilarious by the fact that I was suffering some sort of health disorder following The Lawyer Awards the preceding evening. I crawled away and returned later in the day, feeling more inclined to chat. Luckily, Spiller spent his evening at the DJ Freeman Jubilee party and was himself a little the worse for wear following some enthusiastic dodgems driving.

Spiller is the first corporate head at DJ Freeman and so has to mark out his territory and decide exactly what to make of the role. The firm has three industry-focused groups – media and technology, property and Spiller’s speciality, insurance – combining a blend of contentious and non-contentious practitioners. The idea behind Spiller’s appointment is to coordinate the corporate efforts and make sure that opportunities to exploit and foster relationships are not missed. He has got off to a flying start, leading by example and taking new insurance company PRI Group public in the largest ever Aim float.

It could all have been so different. Appearances can often be deceptive, but Spiller looks every inch the insurance specialist – in its least derogatory sense. He seems sensible and speaks with due care and attention, often pausing to select the correct word. But his original plan when setting off on the legal path was not exactly what DJ Freeman offers. “My idea when I became a lawyer was that I’d be an international, multilingual, jet-setting type of lawyer,” he discloses early in the interview. So how has his career measured up to these early ideas?

Spiller was articled at small insurance firm Hedleys. Five other Hedleys partners are now at DJ Freeman, and unsurprisingly, considering these departures, Hedleys no longer has its insurance focus. And Spiller no longer has the litigation focus that Hedleys invested him with. “I couldn’t face doing another discovery process, so I thought I’d like to go and do deals, so that’s what I did,” explains Spiller. A careers adviser wouldn’t exactly approve of these shifts and jumps, but Spiller is the sort who needs to try things out to make sure he likes them. He also seems to get bored easily, which is ironic considering that he works with insurers.

Fortunately, having dispensed with his legal linguist and litigation ideas, he settled on his next choice and has built a strong practice concentrated on the insurance industry. “When the insurance people joined us here from Hedleys, I became the natural person to whom the insurance litigators would refer any corporate or regulatory work with an insurance flavour to it. That’s how I started combining the two,” he reveals.

There are two sides to Spiller’s practice – corporate and regulatory – all predominantly within the insurance sector. Within his regulatory practice the biggest driver of instructions is alternative risk transfer (ART) work. “It’s very different,” he says. “Very often you start with a clean sheet of paper. You’re doing something that no one has done before. There’s no particular process to follow to get there. And there are very large intellectual challenges in doing that.”

He elaborates: “That – possibly because I have a low frustration threshold – I find very attractive work to do. It’s got something of being an explorer in it. It’s good work, but it’s very insular because really it’s totally within the insurance world and it doesn’t involve exposure to other practice areas.” Spiller likes to mix and match his work to ensure he keeps himself out of mischief. When the charm of the intellectual challenge dims, he is able to focus on corporate matters.

“What I find is that you go through periods of doing virtually all corporate work and you become increasingly desperate to do something that isn’t corporate work. So it becomes quite a relief when some of the regulatory work comes along,” he says. “Then, at other times, you’ll do a series of big insurance transactions, ART deals, and they begin to get quite similar.” Grumbles aside, he acknowledges: “I’ve been fairly lucky that I’ve been able
to move between the two.”

He argues that corporate work is an ideal training ground for prospective managers, because deals take so much coordination. But corporate work, too, has its pitfalls. “The part of the corporate practice that to me is less interesting is the amount of process and procedure involved in it. There’s a lot of document management; a lot of doing certain tasks in a certain way in a certain order and ending up with some of the same arguments again and again.”

Spiller enjoys the cut and thrust of making a deal, but has little time for the bureaucracy indicative of the work. “There are certain familiar arguments that lawyers use, dancing around the same issues, putting the same old arguments, and I don’t have much time for that,” he asserts. “I’d rather say, ‘Well look, can we avoid that unnecessary time-wasting and get to the place where we both know we’re going to go’. And some lawyers will do that, and others will not. And when they don’t, I get quite frustrated.”

At this point it is probably prudent to mention that Spiller is a self-confessed plain speaker. No calling a spade a soil manipulating implement for him. “Tact and diplomacy may not be my strongest suits,” he admits. “I let people know what I think of them. And I encourage them to tell me what they’re thinking. I’d rather know.” He confesses that it may not have always made him the most popular boy in the playground, but he does have a desire, unusual in a lawyer, not to mince words.

He says he has not been told why he was selected to lead the corporate team. He did not solicit the role, but thinks that the notion that if you want something doing, you should give it to a busy person because they know how to allocate time to tasks, holds true. “I make decisions easily and quickly, and I like to get on with things, push people along. I don’t believe there is enough time in the day to spend prevaricating over management decisions,” he states.

Spiller is settling in to the role, but was less keen at the outset. “I kept hoping I wouldn’t be appointed. I’m very keen to publicise the practice and what we’re doing with it. But the risk is getting too much personal publicity.” Spiller genuinely means that sentence even though this is a profile about him.

He continues: “From my point of view, it isn’t really what it’s about. It’s about raising the profile of the practice. I quite like hiding in dark corners.” That is probably more information than was strictly necessary. Joking aside, Spiller is an unassuming man, a company man, but that should not be allowed to fool you. Nobody gets appointed to head up a growing practice area in a solid City concern if they can’t say boo to a goose.
Richard Spiller
Head of corporate
DJ Freeman