Every six months, Rosalyn Schofield leaves her desk at JD Wetherspoon’s HQ, where she is head of legal and company secretary, and dons a pinny.
For a day she will spend her time preparing scampi and chips, ploughman’s lunches and other traditional pub grub for customers at a JD Wetherspoon pub.
Her turn in the kitchens is followed by one behind the bar, serving the clients who flock to the chain of bars which specialise in producing pubs free from music, television and pool tables.
The policy ensures that those involved at board level do not lose touch with the Wetherspoons ethos. Perhaps it is because the management get their hands dirty on a regular basis that the chain has become so successful.
While other pub chains have found the going tough in recent years, with many brewers now opting to sell off their retail arms, Wetherspoons is booming.
Merrill Lynch recently named the chain, along with Scottish & Newcastle and Bass Leisure, as one of the three players in the pub chain game with a “credible investment strategy”.
It suffered a temporary blip in revenue in 1998 when its TV-free policy conflicted with the five weeks of World Cup mania that swept the country – resulting in a 10 per cent fall in revenue for the duration of the competition.
Schofield is involved intimately with those strategies. Not only as she holds a position on the board, but because her department is brought in at the beginning of every initiative.
She says: “The job of my department is to be involved from the outset and to predict and guard against any problems.
She adds: “I am quite often asked by the board ‘We want to do X, give us an idea of the risk involved, don’t tell us why we can’t.'”
Schofield uses Macfarlanes for all of Wetherspoons’ corporate and company work, while its property work is handled by a panel of local firms that includes Berryman Lace Mawer’s Liverpool office, Maclay Murray & Spens in Scotland and London, and McLellans in Hertford.
The company uses McLellans for historical reasons – one of Wetherspoons’ first in-house lawyers left to go into private practice and is now at McLellans, as well as being a personal friend of the chairman.
“McLellans has grown with us,” says Schofield. “As we wanted to widen the panel we chose Berrymans as well. We have an informal set-up regarding the panel, but we only work with people who will accept policy on fees.”
The company operates a fixed-fee policy that Schofield says is used for all transactional work.
“About 70 per cent of our total workload is done with fixed fees and we have always been that way for budgeting purposes,” she says. “That is the way the board likes to work, so it knows what expansion will cost us. The cost of conveyancing matters, because it is part of the cost of opening pubs.”
This year the chain will open 80 new pubs, to add to its 400 existing outlets.
“The good thing that we offer our outside solicitors is that although we insist on fixed fees, we can also promise them block work,” she says.
Litigation and corporate work is sent to outside law firms because, Schofield says, the department does not have the manpower to cope.
Another characteristic that Schofield looks for in panel firms is that they can handle constructive criticism. To this end, she has introduced a controversial policy governing all property work.
“Once a law firm has worked on a property lease, it will be sent to another solicitor on the panel who must feel free to criticise it. That criticism is constructive and one will learn how the lease could have been improved.
“The policy was controversial at first. But within Wetherspoons there is an open philosophy that means that everyone is free to criticise or praise ideas.”
Following the implementation of the constructive criticism policy, Schofield says that Wetherspoons parted company with one of its panel firms that was reluctant to submit its work to the scrutiny of others. She says there was resistance to having the work of a professional questioned.
Schofield also expects value for money from her panel firms, and an understanding of the way that Wetherspoons works.
She says: “We are an individual company with quite a unique way of doing things. While there is an expectation that we will share experiences I do not expect firms to ring me about every little thing, but to know when it’s important to ring.”
Dealing with planning and licensing issues for pubs is invariably handled in-house.
“We take the view that you need to know what we are trying to achieve to handle that type of work. You need to have been Wetherspoonised.”
And the department is very specialised.
“We have two lawyers who deal solely with licensing matters,” says Schofield. “One lawyer deals with employment contracts and legal matters relating to our existing estate, while another deals with acquisition of property and oversees the outside law firms dealing with it.”
Schofield personally deals with a lot of planning while also being responsible for the company secretarial role.
To this end, she has been closely involved with the opening of the company’s first pubs in Northern Ireland. Belfast firm Carson & McDowell has worked on the deal that will see the Colraine court house turned into a music free, smoke free, sport free pub.
Head of legal
|Sector||Restaurants and pubs|
|FTSE 250 rating||215|
|Legal capability||Five lawyers|
|Head of legal||Rosalyn Schofield|
|Reporting to||Timothy Martin, chairman, and John Hutson, managing director|
|Main location for lawyers||Watford|
|Main law firms||Berrymans Lace Mawer, Macfarlanes, Maclay Murray & Spens, McLellans|