To anyone with even a modest dose of cynicism, calling a bank ‘co-operative’ seems something of a paradox. Of course, the name relates to the bank’s parent company The Co-operative Group, but according to customer surveys the name does hold true. And it’s not only co-operative, it’s ethical too.

Ann Page, head of legal services at the bank’s headquarters in Manchester, admits the company is a great place to work. “It’s the employment feel-good factor,” she says. And they have the prizes to prove it. In 2001 the bank retained, for the second year running, a place in The Sunday Times top 100 companies to work. It also won ‘The Company of the Year 2001’ at the Business in the Community Annual Awards for Excellence.

It all sounds a bit nauseating, but in practice the bank’s theories seem to work. Page, for example, has spent almost her entire career as an in-house lawyer – but her 13-year stint at the Co-operative Bank has been the longest.
“I prefer in-house,” she says. “I like being part of an organisation – moving towards business goals that are transferred into plans and objectives.” She says that private practice was focused more on individuals building up their own business, although she admits that today this focus is changing.

After stints at Citibank (where she trained), Crest Homes, Next and the National & Provincial Building Society, as well as a short period in private practice at Hammond Suddards (now Hammond Suddards Edge), she joined the Co-operative Bank in 1989. “It was a time when a new wave of employees were joining, under the charge of Terry Thomas, the then managing director and an inspirational leader,” says Page.

It was during this time that the bank introduced its now-famous ethical stance – a policy that has shaped the business of the bank over the past 10 years.

As well as a strict policy on who it will and will not do business with, the bank has a strong focus on the care of both its customers and staff.

The bank’s ethical stance affects all decisions made by the legal team. “For example, with a partnership or when negotiating contracts, it’s a matter of ensuring a fair deal for all,” Page says.

In the past 12 months, the team has been concentrating on the bank’s review of its performance-related pay scheme. In keeping with the bank’s ethical stance, the new approach is based on core values and has ‘behaviours’ at its core.
“These behaviours, such as ‘striving for excellence’, ‘ethics in action’, ‘teamworking’ and ‘leadership’, are vital elements of people’s roles,” says Page. “They are the underlying drivers of performance.”
In practice this involved revising all previous job descriptions (270) and introducing a much smaller number of relevant roles (25), as well as the re-engineering of all the bank’s people processes.

There was also N2 (when the Financial Services and Markets Act came into force) to contend with, a job which was the main thrust of many banks and financial services’ legal teams in 2001.

Last year represented a milestone for the bank. For the first time it broke the £100m pre-tax profit barrier, an increase of 11.6 per cent. Not surprisingly, the legal bill increased as well.

The team outsourced approximately 20 per cent of its work in 2001. This represents a significant increase on 2000, according to Page, and she expects the amount will continue to rise. “The regulatory framework creates a mammoth industry for lawyers. I can’t see that being relaxed in any way.”

The annual spend on external legal work is around £750,000 to £1m. Because the bank’s headquarters are in Manchester, most of the work goes to firms with a strong northern presence – predominantly DLA, Eversheds and Addleshaw Booth & Co.

More recent relationships include those with Simmons & Simmons and Bristows. Usually the firm is instructed on corporate and regulatory work. Most IP work is farmed out to Bristows, which the bank has been instructing for two years.

Where possible, however, legal work is taken on in-house. Page’s team consists of three sections: a commercial team, a contracts team and a litigation team. In each team there are two qualified solicitors.

The commercial team provides full commercial support for the bank’s internet arm Smile, and covers all brand, marketing and regulatory/compliance issues.

“The commercial team takes on product development which involves compliance regulations such as Consumer Credit, Data Protection and FSA,” Page says. “Another major branch for them is brand – which involves a large amount of IP work.”

As well as advising, negotiating and drafting on a wide variety of agreements, the contract team also works on projects and structures for company law, co-operative societies and local authorities. Almost 30 per cent of the country’s local authorities are currently clients of the Co-operative Bank.

The litigation team also has a wide remit. Most basic litigation work, such as debt collection (both corporate and personal), is done in-house, with more complex cases outsourced where necessary and overseen by the in-house litigation team.

The amount of work for the litigation team has risen over the past couple of years.

“Previously, we had just one major case at a time. Now we have about half a dozen,” Page says. “Whether or not this is because we’re becoming more litigious is difficult to say,” she adds. But she admits that this increase is likely to continue.

This year will also see the team’s hands full with the formation of Co-operative Financials Services (CFS) – a new industrial and provident society of the Co-operative Group. CFS, will provide strategic advice to both the bank and the Co-operative Group’s insurance provider Co-operative Insurance Society (CIS), in an attempt to bring the two institutions closer together.

The in-house team is already advising on the job. “It will mean a lot of work for us in 2002,” Page says. But whether they will continue to advise the umbrella company once it has been established remains to be seen.

Page is also kept busy as the chair of the National Law Society Commerce & Industry Group, and the chair of the Co-operative Law Association.

She mentions that her last birthday was a big milestone for her, and that her energy levels are beginning to drop. Somehow that is hard to believe.
Ann Page
Head of legal
The Co-operative Bank

Organisation The Co-operative Bank
Sector Banking
Employees 4,500
Legal capability 18 in legal department, six qualified solicitors
Head of legal Ann Page
Reporting to Ken Lewis, executive director of group resources
Main law firms DLA, Eversheds, Addleshaw Booth & Co, Simmons & Simmons, Bristows