Alec Latimer: Selfridges

It may be one of the UK’s most famous retailers, but Selfridges company secretary Alec Latimer says his organisation is actually in the business of entertainment. By Jon Parker

Not many lawyers have to work with an Elvis impersonator crooning below them, but Alec Latimer is one of them.

As company secretary for Selfridges, Latimer works above the department store’s flagship branch on London’s Oxford Street, which he tenably describes as “the most exciting shopping environment in Europe”.

“We’ve had a Las Vegas-style casino in the lower ground floor, [performance artist] Mr Kamikaze swimming through a glass tank in the window, while the artist Spencer Tunic had 600 people standing naked on the escalator. It’s pretty cutting-edge,” he enthuses.

Add to that list a 13-metre replica of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer statue for the promotion of ‘Brasil 40°’ in 2004, live punk bands, dancing girls and the world’s largest photographic artwork, XV Seconds by Sam Taylor Wood, wrapped around the outside of the shop, and you have a fairly unusual place to buy a new designer frock.

In order to give the creative sales team the maximum possible freedom, Latimer’s job necessitates regular liaison with Westminster Council and the police over displays and events, as well as alcohol licences. All four stores – Oxford Street, two in Manchester and one in Birmingham – serve alcohol and food, requiring considerable negotiation with the authorities. Oxford Street alone has 18 separate licences.

Although Selfridges is no ordinary fashion outlet (“We’re in the business of entertainment,” Latimer asserts), when it comes to revenue, “clothes come first, followed by accessories, then the home department,” he says, while food and drink serve just to “drive people into the stores”.

Accordingly, Latimer’s workload also includes the more typical legal issues for a fashion retailer, such as disputes over payment, delivery, copyright and trademarks, ‘slips, trips and falls’ in relation to public and employer’s liability, and the occasional customer dispute. Despite this, he is the company’s only in-house lawyer.

“It’s quite lean, but we don’t have a terrific number of disputes that reach court,” explains Latimer. “We’re also not a directly regulated business, which is where legal spend can increase. We try to find a practical way of delivering the best advice.”

Despite the media clamour about the UK’s supposed new ‘compensation culture’, Latimer says that liability claims have always been few, while the majority of customer disputes are resolved on the shop floor rather than in the courtroom.

“We have a progressive and sensible approach,” he says. “If someone has a genuine issue, then we have to decide whether to trust them – and I’m always an optimist.”

Occasionally Latimer will turn to outside firms: he uses London-based IP specialists Rouse & Co for trademark and copyright work and Berwin Leighton Paisner for licensing work in London. Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw handles Selfridges’ corporate, construction and property work in the London area, with Latimer singling out property litigator Michelle Freyne for particular praise. Bevan Brittan is used for licensing work in the regions and DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary provides help on IT and property-related matters.

Selfridges has no particular allegiance to any chambers, but last year Latimer turned to Colin Edelman QC of Devereux Chambers for advice on insurance claims after the 7 July bombings. Meanwhile, Jonathan Brock QC of Falcon Chambers has been instructed to handle property litigation work.

Prior to joining Selfridges in 2001, Latimer himself was at the distinctly less glamorous retail chain Argos, where he was an in-house legal adviser for 18 months. Before that, he spent a year as the in-house solicitor at London Electricity, preceded by a year at Harbottle & Lewis and three years at the pre-merger Rowe & Maw, which included his training. But now he is at Selfridges, Latimer insists that he is there to stay.

“It’s a cliché, but retail really is fast moving,” he explains. “There are new challenges and new partners coming on board all the time. It sounds trite, but no two days are the same and retail and licensing are a very fun mix.”

Alec Latimer
Company secretary

Organisation Selfridges
Sector Retail
Turnover £308m
Legal spend £200,000
Employees 2,700
Legal capability One
Main law firms Berwin Leighton Paisner, Bevan Brittan, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Mayer Brown Rowe & Maw, Rouse & Co
Company secretary Alec Latimer
Career 1998 – Harbottle & Lewis; 1999 – London Electricity; 2000 – Argos; 2001 – assistant company secretary, Selfridges; 2003 – company secretary, Selfridges