A novel approach

Being part of Penguin Group’s in-house team is a book lover’s paradise, and with libel cases, acquisitions and relocations to deal with, it’s probably a lawyer’s dream too. Kathryn Hobbs reports

Helena Peacock, legal director and company secretary for the Penguin Group, is a woman who is clearly very happy with her lot. Working for Penguin is a bibliophile’s paradise and her new office on the Strand, though not yet fully ordered or organised, is already strewn with books.
Owned by international media company Pearson, Penguin sits alongside Pearson Education and the FT brand. The acquisition of Dorling Kindersley last year has deepened Pearson’s educational capability and adds a unique dimension to the Penguin Group.

Penguin and Dorling Kindersley are undergoing a formal process of integration, with the inevitable ramifications for their in-house legal departments. No legal staff have been lost as a result of Penguin’s acquisition. Peacock has assumed overall control of a combined legal department of five lawyers, and as company secretary she has to deliver a commercial rather than purely legal approach.

“I like being close to the business – my role is risk management,” she says. “I’m not here to obstruct. Anything avoidable is avoided, and that’s the attitude behind the whole team.”

This merger has prompted the relocation to the concrete monolith on the Strand, replete with intimidating security presence. When you share a building with Shell, you have to expect a multitude of security to ward off unwanted elements. Not that Penguin has been without adverse attention – notably the furore in the 1960s over its publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Just last year, the group courted controversy on a grand scale in its defence of a libel case brought by the historian David Irving. Irving complained that certain passages in Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, by Professor Deborah Lipstadt and published by Penguin, accused him of being a Nazi apologist and that it conspired to ruin his reputation as a historian. Penguin won the case in the High Court, but matters have not yet come to a conclusion as Irving is seeking leave to appeal. Irving, who originally represented himself, was advised by Nigel Adams & Co. Penguin retained the services of Davenport Lyons which, along with Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners, provides the bulk of its external legal services.

Peacock says that it was incredible to be involved in such a high-profile case. “Nothing is ever certain, but we’d have been very surprised if we’d lost,” she says. The newspapers were full of the case, and letters of support from the public were delivered regularly throughout its duration. And for the in-house legal team at Penguin, the case provoked more administrative than legal work. While Davenport Lyons masterminded the overarching strategy, Peacock and her team were selecting expert witnesses and coordinating their various testimonies.

Publishing is one industry in which the legal team has a well-defined remit. Libel in its many guises is the bane of the profession, but as Peacock says: “The only safe way to avoid libel is not to publish at all.” And Penguin would not be doing terribly good business if it followed that maxim, so editors are well-versed in defamation laws to ensure that material for publication remains within the law. One of the most taxing decisions for the team is whether a book will have to be withdrawn because of a single sentence.

Penguin’s in-house team serve as back-up to the editorial process, dealing with the more risky texts. Peacock says that people often think she and her team read all the books prior to publication – a highly unfeasible and time-consuming proposition.

In addition to a busy year tied up with the Irving case, the legal team at Penguin has also dealt with a move to new premises and merging with the Dorling Kindersley team. Bearing in mind that the two companies have different and well-defined publishing processes, one issue that has come out of the merger has been contracts.

Integrating separate systems will always throw up the occasional problem. Dorling Kindersley owns most of its copyright. Its books are written internally and conform to a clear template. Penguin relies much more heavily on independent authors. Copyright and contracts have to be dealt with in a coherent way, so the integrated legal team has had to balance the two publishing styles and create consistency in its contracts.

But Peacock is no stranger to upheaval and change herself. After qualifying with Lovell White & King (now Lovells) in 1976, Peacock decided that a City practice was not really for her. She left shortly after completing her articles, choosing to take what she had learned in terms of litigation to Kingston-upon-Thames practice Howell Jones & Partners. And having met her husband Philip at Lovells, she did not leave with advocacy abilities alone.

Despite no longer working there, Lovells continued to exert undue influence over Peacock’s movements. Her husband’s role in establishing the Jeddah office led to a four-year period in Saudi Arabia. Again, adaptability was key because women were not permitted to work. In her first encounter with publishing, Peacock took over the management of illegal ex-patriate newspaper Jeddah News.

The attitude evinced by Penguin could not be further from Peacock’s Arabian days. Her legal team is wholly comprised of women and Penguin operates a flexible approach to the working day.

Peacock speaks highly of her team. “It’s impossible to be a stuffy lawyer if you’re working in a publishing environment,” she says. Penguin does not take on trainees and rarely employs lawyers on secondment, and the interaction between the company’s lawyers and all of its other staff is emphasised. “We’re not lawyers sitting behind closed doors. We want people to come and see us. We have a practical application,” she says. “I like enabling the business to happen in as safe a way as possible. I like being part of the production process.”

She has noticed that queries coming to the team are less about legal specifics than they are about making judgements – a trend that fits with her own interpretation of the in-house team. “We’re not a directly law-focused department. We’re a tool to be used as necessary, and no one in the office knows what they’re going to be doing when they arrive in the morning.”

Her own work over the last few months has certainly been varied. She has been involved in setting up a Dorling Kindersley joint venture in Portugal, trademark issues in the US and she has assessed the content of the European Union copyright directive.

Penguin’s legal team rests behind the scenes, providing relief from worries, advice on how to approach a problem and acting as a general sounding board for concerns.
“I want it to be a well-used legal function,” says Peacock. “One of the benefits of being in-house is that you get asked questions that you wouldn’t normally take to external counsel.” All of this creates a dynamism to the nature of the work undertaken, which is what the team thrives on.
Helena Peacock
Head of legal
Penguin Group (UK)

Organisation Penguin Group (UK)
Sector Publishing
Employees 1,500
Legal Capability Five lawyers (one part time)
Head of legal Helena Peacock
Reporting to Chief executive officer Anthony Forbes Watson
Location London
Main law firms Davenport Lyons, Herbert Smith and Peter Carter-Ruck and Partners