The Halifax is one of the boldest and most diverse financial services businesses, with 20 million customers and assets of u145bn.
It is Britain’s largest mortgage lender and, once it takes over Birmingham Midshires Building Society next month, it will be bigger still.
Growth has accelerated after a succession of dramatic changes such as the merger with Leeds Permanent in August 1995 and its demutualisation in 1997. Other recent deals include the acquisition of insurer Clerical Medical & General in 1996.
Group solicitor Chris Jowett’s department is highly organised and tightly run. Colleagues say Jowett, a former infantry captain who trained at Dibb Lupton & Co before joining Halifax in 1978, is very much a “hands-on manager”. He has chaired Law Society and International Bar Association committees, and is chairman of the Council of Mortgage Lenders’ legal panel.
“In running any legal department you have to concentrate on being very close to your internal customer, delivering what they want, when they want it,” he says.
“You’ve got to anticipate what their needs will be in the future. We’re a fast-moving, volume business, and the shape of the department has changed a lot in recent years to reflect that.”
Jowett’s team handles as much as possible in-house, with the exception of M&A, major litigation, bulk repossessions, and Treasury work. 40 per cent of the total work is property related. Banking, intellectual property and insurance are key growth areas, and the team is gearing up on new areas such as internet trading.
“Most of my time is spent managing the legal function, so there’s a lot of interaction between us all here,” says Jowett. However, he also takes a close interest in litigation. Most of the litigation team’s work is professional negligence action against solicitors and surveyors. It has some 450 outstanding cases.
The department has specialist groups of lawyers. These include two teams which handle work traditionally seen as “core” Halifax business, and which get close attention from Jowett.
Mortgage lending, led by Roddy Garden, which also handles estate agency, general insurance, and personal loan matters.
Savings accounts, led by Teresa Camidge, which also handles Visacard, banking, IP, competition, and overseas operations.
Two other groups report directly to deputy group solicitor Ann O’Brien, former legal chief at Leeds Permanent. These are:
General commercial, which handles mainly high-value or complex contractual matters, and:
Employment and pensions, handling staff-related issues.
Other groups include:
Treasury. London-based, it advises Halifax’s asset finance business, involved in a wide range of deals.
Financial services advising Halifax’s own-brand life business, including unit trusts, PEPs, and soon, ISAs.
Property. Handles all commercial property work for the group. A “residential” team provides free conveyancing for relocating staff – it carried out 486 last year.
Clerical Medical & General still trades under its old name, and has a six-lawyer team led by Susan Fogarty.
Departmental lawyers tend to be northern. “There’s still a perception south of Watford that we’re just a building society, and that Halifax is full of dark, satanic mills,” says Jowett.
Jowett’s lawyers are “achievement orientated”, with regular monitoring of individual performance. 18 months ago a review of the legal function praised its economy and efficiency. “We came out with flying colours,” he says.
The same approach is taken with external law firms. “They have to deliver high-quality service at low cost. We can get an excellent service from blue-chip non-London firms,” says Jowett.
Head of legal and group solicitor
|FTSE 100 ranking||number 13|
|Legal function||Around 34 lawyers|
|Head of legal||Chris Jowett, group solicitor|
|Reporting to||David Gilchrist, group secretary|
|Main location for lawyers||Halifax (Treasury team in City of London)|
|Main law firms||Linklaters; Dibb Lupton Alsop; Hammond Suddards (group corporate and litigation); Clifford Chance; Allen & Overy; Wilde Sapte (Treasury function); Walker Morris; Shoosmiths & Harrison; Hammond Suddards; Marsons; Charles Caplan (mortgage repossessions)|