GE SeaCo legal chief Dominic Buckwell takes a commercial approach to his job and a careful approach as to which firms he chooses to spend his significant legal budget on.
Two years after Dominic Buckwell joined GE SeaCo as general counsel, the shipping container leasing company embarked on the most radical restructuring in its nine-year history.
It began in the first half of 2008, and by the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in September of that year the company had made almost 50 people redundant and closed offices in Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa and Portugal.
Buckwell says the fact that GE SeaCo restructured before the ”spectacular” crash in the shipping industry explains why the company – a joint venture between GE Capital and Sea Containers – is now among the world’s leading container leasing outfits, with an annual turnover of $350m (£227m).
“We’d already reorganised in the first half of 2008 to cut costs, so we were efficient when Lehman collapsed and we saw a spectacular drop in international trade,” recalls Buckwell. “Our focus on big shipping lines and key clients, rather than a diffuse client base, also helped.
“The recession was a challenge, but having streamlined our operations before it hit, our timing was fortuitous and we were well-placed to weather the storm.”
Buckwell had specialised in shipping for almost 10 years before he joined GE SeaCo in 2006. After being called to the bar in 1993 he began working in the sector when he joined Holman Fenwick & Willan (which has since dropped the ’&’) in 1997.
He spent three years at the firm, handling marine insurance, commercial fraud and ship sale and purchase disputes at the High Court.
In 2000, joined Richards Butler – leaving shortly before the firm’s 2007 takeover by US firm Reed Smith – as a solicitor advocate.
Following a year-long secondment at parent firm Sea Containers Services, Buckwell was offered the general counsel role at GE SeaCo.
“The good thing about this job is that it’s so varied,” he enthuses. “On any day I could be looking at any number of jurisdictions.”
Buckwell works with a five-strong legal team, including one other lawyer based in Singapore who covers the South East Asia region. As well as tax, employment and contract issues, Buckwell is responsible for acquisitions and disposals, financing and securitisations, compliance, outsourcing contracts and company secretarial.
With an operation that spans the globe and employs 270 people, much of Buckwell’s $2m-$3m legal budget is spent on outside legal counsel. The majority of the company’s finance work comes under US law and the legal team uses either Carter Ledyard & Milburn or Weil Gotshal & Manges on a regular basis.
For tax matters Buckwell often instructs veteran Slaughter and May partner Steve Edge – “a first-rate lawyer” – and for corporate he uses Ashurst and Norton Rose. UK litigation is handled by several firms, including Clyde & Co, Holman and Reed Smith.
When dealing with external counsel, Buckwell says that above all else he is looking for lawyers he can trust.
“Competence and expertise is a given, but what we also need is trust so we know firms won’t overbill or overstaff,” he says. “That trust is built up through experience.”
This means Buckwell usually avoids fixed-fee arrangements. “I’ve found that with firms that offer fixed fees, there are so many assumptions built in that it can become almost meaningless,” he explains.
Instead Buckwell has a cost estimate written up at the beginning of a project, trusting his advisers to keep in line. Firms that do not will quickly find themselves dropped from his informal list of preferred firms.
Buckwell’s expertise in the shipping sector means that most customer contracts are handled in-house, but while some in-house counsel are considered business blockers, Buckwell says has uses his experience of private practice to challenge this perception.
“It’s about building confidence with the commercial people, much as I would have done with a client in private practice,” he says. “I take a commercial approach, which senior management appreciate.”
But he concedes that there were difficulties early on. As a naturally risk-averse litigator used to exploring all the options, he was more used to giving opinions than making decisions.
While Buckwell clearly prefers the role of in-house counsel, he still has fond memories of his days in private practice.
“I miss appearing in court,” he admits. “But sometimes preparing for the boardroom can be like preparing for court because you have to be ready to make big decisions and argue your case. I suppose it’s like a surrogate court for me.”
Name: Dominic Buckwell
Company: GE SeaCo
Position: General counsel
Industry: Shipping container leasing
Turnover: $350m (£227m)
Legal capability: Two lawyers, three support staff/paralegals
Annual legal spend: $2m-$3m
Main external law firms: Ashurst, Clye & Co, Holman Fenwick Willan, More Fisher Brown, Norton Rose, Reed Smith, Slaughter and May, Thomas Cooper, Walker Morris