Just two years ago, healthcare giant SSL International did not exist. In 1999, the company was formed as a result of a £1.4bn merger between London International Group (LIG) and Seton Scholl Healthcare.
The previous year, the latter company was created when, in an attempt to widen its worldwide spread, Seton acquired Scholl, which has a presence in the European, Asian and US markets.
These changes in corporate structure have been reflected in the growth of the in-house legal department.
In March last year, Jonathan Jowett, company secretary and legal director at SSL International, was the only internal lawyer housed at the company.
With the acquisition of LIG, the in-house team was automatically bolstered by the four lawyers who were kept on after the merger. And Jowett is keen to keep building the legal capability both internally and externally.
At present, SSL International is in the process of establishing a global panel of external firms and intends to increase the number of in-house lawyers within the next 18 months (The Lawyer, 17 April).
On the growth of the company since his arrival, Jowett says: “It was something of a baptism of fire.” He adds that trial and error still plays a role in getting the line-up right.
He says: “We are very much having to suck it and see at the moment. Seton did not have an in-house department as it was very well served by [Kuit Steinart Levy] which acted as its in-house team.”
But while Jowett is committed to expanding in-house to match the aggressive growth of the company, he says that there are no guarantees that it will continue in this vein.
He says: “We are almost like a dotcom in the way we are growing so fast. If you ask me what this company will look like in three years and what the in-house team will look like, I just do not know.”
However he says: “It is not my philosophy to have all the work in-house. I see it as a legal management role rather than a technical skill. We do not need the head count.”
As part of this legal management role, Jowett allows individual managers within the company a high degree of autonomy when choosing which firms they use.
However, he maintains a “hands-on” approach in terms of keeping in close contact with firms.
To this end he shuns traditional panels and beauty parades in favour of assessing relationships.
He says: “My starting point is always, ‘How is the relationship going?’ Then you ask about rates, how the firm delivers and so on. But the starting point has got to be, ‘Is it working for the business?'”
Although the group has a long-standing partnership with local Manchester practice Kuit Steinart, it is already testing some new possibilities.
He says: “We are trying out two other firms in Manchester over the next 18 months on the basis that Kuits provides an excellent service, but, if only on good business principles, it makes sense to get another law firm in the frame.
“We are getting out there and talking to people. A beauty parade only gives you the best presenters. It all comes back to relationships.”
DLA and Garretts are the two firms working on a trial basis, although the group is also talking to Hammond Suddards and Addleshaw Booth & Co about working together.
Both DLA and Garretts were selected because of past relationships – Jowett used DLA’s Birmingham office at his previous company while he is aware of Garretts through its association with accountancy giant Arthur Andersen, the group’s auditors.
However, at this point, everything remains up in the air in terms of how the final selection of firms will be maintained.
He says: “I have not decided yet whether I am in favour of formal service arrangements. We have got to have a bit of give and take. If the relationship is working who needs a bit of paper?”
Internationally, the company often uses a range of local firms which include Shearn Delamore in Malaysia, GWP Arans & Co in Melbourne and Philadelphia-based Pepper Hamilton.
On the US, Jowett says: “Pepper Hamilton offers us an excellent service. It is not the largest but it understands our business and it works very well.
“But you cannot pass the work out to every firm that you have had a relationship with. Seton Scholl had a good relationship with Pepper Hamilton but now we have a [US] in-house counsel who has his own contacts.”
Jowett draws on the local knowledge, experience and contacts of SSL International staff based in individual countries.
“I have not got time to go on a world tour of law firms. [Local practices] are not international but they know their onions and that is good enough for us. Operational managers have their contacts with law firms around the world. There is nothing quite like a recommendation.”
Whatever the future holds, Jowett is adamant he will continue assessing what works best for the business. “The real value is making sure that you are adding value. It is all about managing relationships,” he says.
Company secretary and legal director
|FTSE 250 rating||178|
|Head of legal||Jonathan Jowett, company secretary and legal director|
|Reporting to||Iain Cater, chief executive|
|Main location for lawyers||Cheshire|
|Main law firms||Allen & Overy, Kuit Steinart Levy and DLA|