When Joanna Luke joined caterer Elior UK as head of legal in 2006 it was a chance to combine a career in law with her passion for all things French, says Andrew Pugh
Elior UK head of legal Joanna Luke studied French and law at university but did not plan on becoming a lawyer after she graduated. Instead she set her sights on a career with the European Commission. But after a spell as a stagiaire in Brussels she decided to return to the UK to sit her entrance exams, later taking up a training contract with Addleshaw Goddard.
Luke’s in-house career began in 2000 when she joined Airtours, where she worked on the company’s rebrand to Mytravel. She moved to airport services company Servisair GlobeGround in 2004 and was headhunted by Elior two yers later.
The interview was held at the firm’s headquarters in Paris. Luke believes the fact that she could handle being quizzed in French gave her a huge advantage over other candidates vying for the role.
Elior, which operates in contract catering under the Avenance name and in concession catering as Eliance, provides services to clients ranging from colleges and train stations to hospitals, care homes and football clubs. Clients include Waterstones, Queens Park Rangers FC, EDF Energy and Kingston University.
Luke has had to build the UK legal function from scratch. When she started it was just her and a legal secretary, but she has since hired two more lawyers. An average day can see her handling anything from commercial contracts, tender reviews, IP rights and trademark protection issues to low-value corporate and joint venture work.
While there are 16 lawyers in Paris, the UK end remains relatively small. Luke will often outsource areas such as litigation, liquor licensing, public procurement and some competition work.
The main firm she works with is Eversheds, chiefly for litigation, compliance, competition law and public procurement.
“Geographically they’re a nice fit for us,” she says, “But they’re also the most innovative law firm I’ve come across. Lawyers can sometimes be too academic and that’s no use to me. We’re always looking to fix fees because you need to know where your costs are and you don’t want any surprises. When it comes to that, Eversheds are always very commercially minded.”
In the event of a conflict Luke will often use her former firm Addleshaws. The legal team also uses Manchester-based Squire Sanders Hammonds partner Nick Jones for employment and HR matters and Poppleston Allen for specialist licensing matters.
Luke cites one of the most critical aspects of her role as training and her goal of “making legal issues less scary”. To this end she holds regular training events with the operations and sales teams at Elior’s training academy, covering areas such as competition, IP rights, compliance and the Bribery Act.
“Part of the job’s about educating the teams on legal issues and trying to mitigate risk,” she says. “Training means less risk and less chance of litigation down the line.”
She also holds monthly meetings with the contracts and concessions teams and is present at the company’s leadership meetings.
While Luke says she now has the full support of the business, it was not always the case.
“At first there was a feeling we were policing things rather than being an enabler to the business,” she recalls.
One of her first jobs was to develop a standardised system for contracts and establish a central database for trademark and compliance matters – the kind of initiative she claims has helped the legal department earn respect and enabled it to develop relationships with other parts of the business.
“Four years on and we’ve really got respect and buy-in from the business,” she enthuses. “We’re not there to police what they’re doing, but to help build on what they’re doing, and bring a professional edge by making sure they understand risk. A lot of that’s about building relationships and showing we’re not just lawyers – we’re real people.”
Throw in the fact that her office is less than a mile away from her home in Macclesfield and it is easy to see why Luke feels she has fallen on her feet.
“I’m a head of legal and I get to use my French,” she says. “Who gets that kind of job on their doorstep?”
Organisation: Elior UK
Industry: Catering and facilities management services
Title: Head of legal
Reporting to:Finance director Philip Foster
Total number of employees (UK): 10,000
Total legal spend (UK):£350,000
Total legal capability:Two lawyers, two paralegals, one legal administrator
Main external law firms:Addleshaw Goddard, DWF, Eversheds, Hammonds, Poppleston Allen