Merlie Calvert: De Beers

De Beers has found a priceless resource in legal services manager Merlie Calvert. David Middleton reports

In a new twist on an old saying, Merlie Calvert is De Beers’ best friend. The 32-year-old manager of legal services (North) for the world’s largest diamond company was named In-house Lawyer of the Year at The Lawyer Awards
in June.

De Beers has gone through a period of significant change in recent years. The company once controlled more than 90 per cent of the global diamond market. This has been reduced through increased competition and intense regulatory scrutiny to something in the region of 45 per cent. It is Calvert’s expertise that is largely responsible for guiding the De Beers group of companies through the minefield of European and US antitrust regulations. Calvert joined De Beers in 2002 as the company’s first in-house competition lawyer and just the third lawyer in-house for the northern hemisphere operations. She was promoted to legal services manager (North) in July 2004 and now heads a legal team of 14, which strives to keep more and more work in-house.

De Beers was “amost entirely wedded” to Linklaters as its external counsel when Calvert joined the company,” she says. Under her leadership that relationship has been scaled back, with a number of smaller firms securing

“It makes good economic sense not to use a top magic circle firm for bread-and-butter work,” Calvert explains. “Although we do retain Linklaters for some projects where their expertise is invaluable and financially justifiable, we largely do most of our work in-house now and I like it that way. De Beers faces many complex industry issues, so you need a comprehensive understanding. Our advice is as good as we enable it to be and we make it as informed as we can.” Calvert, who joined from SJ Berwin, retains strong links to her old firm, using it as “a good commercial and pragmatic sounding board”.

“Sometimes you get [private practice] lawyers who want to quote back to you the law,” says Calvert. “Don’t tell me the law, I know the law, I want your opinion on the point of law. SJ Berwin is very good and very pragmatic at sending through the sort of response I can use.”

“I need to craft a legal view to suit our needs internally, and when you’re dealing with people on satellite phones in the middle of nowhere, or on the
private jet between meetings, time is of the essence. We run law at the pace of business and we need advice that enables us to bridge the gap between the technical issues and what the company actually needs.”

De Beers uses Osborne Clarke out of both its Bristol and London offices for commercial advice and it has also started to use Barlow Lyde & Gilbert for some commercial work.

As a miner across the globe and a rough diamond wholesaler, De Beers throws up a wide range of legal issues for Calvert and her team to deal with.

“Diamonds are a product no one needs to survive. The way they’re sold is highly emotional. They symbolise love,” she says. “The reputation and integrity of the product is so important and it’s a very challenging product to be involved with.” “One day we’re dealing with exploration and prospective joint ventures, then we have sales and marketing issues, business development and strategy, and
of course we get customer complaints as well – when you don’t have enough diamonds for everyone, someone’s always unhappy.”

The mining side means the team has had to develop an understanding of geology and social and environmental issues, while also negotiating with governments and regulators. The diamonds themselves throw up plenty of
challenges too, with some 16,000 classifications available.

And yes, if you were wondering, Calvert does get a staff discount.

Merlie Calvert
Manager of legal services (North)
De Beers

Organisation De Beers
Sector Mining/minerals
Annual expenditure $7.9bn (£4.16bn)
Employees 21,000 in 25 countries
Legal capability 14 (northern hemisphere)
Manager of legal services (North) Merlie Calvert
Reporting to Commercial and legal director Bruce Cleaver
Main law firms Barlow Lyde & Gilbert, DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Linklaters, Osborne Clarke, SJ Berwin
Merlie Calvert CV Education: 1995 – LLB, University of Bristol; 1996 – LPC, College of Law
Work history: 1997 – trained at SJ Berwin; 1999 – qualified as solicitor in competition law at SJ Berwin; 2002 – joined De Beers as counsel, competition; 2003 – appointed De Beers senior counsel, competition; 2004 – appointed manager of legal services at De Beers (North); 2006 – appointed director of Diamond Trading Company, the sales and marketing arm of De Beers