Found in translation: Catherine Palmer, Joseph

If you’ve ever been on the Eurostar, Catherine Palmer’s voice will not be new to you. But as Tom Phillips discovers, the legal director of fashion retailer Joseph is not just
a pretty voice

Catherine Palmer
Catherine Palmer

For Catherine Palmer, hopping on a train to Paris means taking a journey back to a ­former life. Now legal director at fashion retailer Joseph, Palmer started her career on a different track entirely.

The eloquent lawyer, who now divides her time between the stylish streets of London’s South ­Kensington and Avenue Montaigne in the French capital, originally trained as a bilingual lexicographer. Palmer’s main project was translating a French-to-English dictionary at Oxford University Press, putting her language skills to the test and demanding an extraordinary attention to detail.

An enthusiasm for theatre saw her offer her perfect French diction to the recently opened Eurostar train service. They agreed and after a day in the recording studio she became the female voice of the Channel ­Tunnel and has remained so ever since.

“I have that constant reminder between London and Paris,” says Palmer, who as legal head of a fashion retailer and clothing line, makes the trip across the Channel more ­frequently than most.

But anecdote aside – have we all not wondered who those announcers are? – how did a lexicographer go on to become a corporate in-house lawyer?
“Applied linguistics is very similar to the legal world in lots of ways,” explains Palmer. “It felt to me that skills such as analysing meaning, for instance, were the qualities of a lawyer. And it worked out very well for me.”

Palmer’s role at Joseph, which sells clothes by designers including Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney across nearly 100 stores in 11 countries, sees her acting as ­company secretary and board ­member. She also heads many of the back-office functions, including ­payroll, security, facilities and human resources. It is a job that has many sides, but then with Japanese owners and an Italian chief executive, the company has a ­multicultural ­parentage.

“It has quite an international flavour,” says Palmer, who oversees a small legal team comprising a trainee and an intern based in France.

After Joseph’s acquisition by Japanese retail group Onward Kashiyama in 2005, Palmer has been working closely with her ­”inspirational” chief executive Sara Ferrero. Ferrero’s appointment in 2008 brought with it a drive by the ­company to double turnover by 2013.

“It’s ambitious and exciting,” says Palmer. “After the acquisition the first couple of years were spent ­trying to change the structure. It was a ­creative company that had been started from scratch and had to comply with the needs of a Japanese multinational organisation.

“We’re very fortunate in this ­climate to have a shareholder [in Onward] that’s willing to invest in things such as new stores, redesigning the collection and advertising ­campaigns.”

Palmer’s priority is to help drive this change, an expanded role that includes work outside her legal remit. For legal help with “anything that can’t be done in-house” she turns to outside counsel, namely Browne Jacobson for commercial property, Bersay & Associés for French ­employment matters and Potter Clarkson on trademark issues.

Palmer has taken an unusual route from lexicographer to in-house lawyer via the Eurostar. After ­starting her law degree in the second year at Oxford, Palmer began as a trainee at Slaughter and May before working at Browne Jacobson, Fladgate Fielder – where she set up the firm’s French office – then onto in-house positions.
And what does this lexicographer-turned-lawyer think of her life in the legal world?

“It’s fabulous,” she says, admitting that she “enjoys” the clothes her ­company produces and still gets to use her linguistic skills while working on French contracts. “There’s a ­balance within the ­company between the creative side and the more ­serious, risk-averse side. I’m on the risk-averse side, but it’s wonderful.”

So next time you take a trip under the Channel, listen out for the ­linguist who came out the other side a lawyer.

Name: Catherine Palmer

Company: Joseph

Position: Legal director

Industry: Retail

Number of ­employees:500

Legal capability:Three

Main external law firms:Browne ­Jacobson, Bersay & Associés,

Potter ­Clarkson

Turnover: £70m (Joseph Ltd)

Legal spend: £150,000

Catherine Palmer’s CV


1977–81: MA (Maîtrise), Sorbonne, University of Paris

1993-95: MA ­Jurisprudence, Queen’s ­College, Oxford

1995-96: Postgraduate Diploma in Legal ­Practice, Oxford

Work history:

1982-93: Teacher and bilingual ­lexicographer

1996-98: Trainee, ­Slaughter and May

1998-2000: Solicitor, Browne Jacobson

2000-03: Solicitor and head of French desk, Fladgate Fielder

2003-05: Head of legal, VEF (UK)

2005-present: Legal director, Joseph