Scrummin’ it

Secretary and legal officer to the Rugby Football Union Jonathan Hall has a vision of England winning the 2007 World Cup. Emma Vere-Jones finds out that even lawyers can dream

The long-term goal of Jonathan Hall is for England to win the 2007 Rugby World Cup. “But if we won it next year, that would be a bonus,” he adds. However, despite the fact that he has spent the hour prior to the interview at the gym, it is not his physical prowess that will be propelling the team towards that final victory. It is his legal capability.

As secretary and legal officer at the Rugby Football Union (RFU), Hall admits that his background is more legal than rugby. (Although, when pressed, he informs me that he did play in the backs when he was younger.)

After university, Hall articled at Baker & McKenzie and following qualification took a position as an assistant in the litigation department. However, he made the move to in-house counsel – and to sport – fairly quickly. Just a year later he took a post at sports management company International Management Group (IMG), where he stayed for around five years.

“While I was there [IMG], someone phoned up and said, ‘Would you be interested in going to work in-house for a large sports governing body?’,” says Hall. “I said, ‘Yes – but it depends which one’. When I was told it was the RFU I was very interested. I was very happy at IMG and would have quite happily stayed there; but the temptation of going to the RFU was too great.”

Hall enjoys the more commercial focus of an in-house role. “The key difference is the fact that you’re not always giving people you advise internally chapter and verse on the law on a particular matter,” muses Hall. “You’re basically trying to interpret the law into something meaningful for them. It’s really almost translating the legal advice into lay speak. Good communication is very important. That’s one of the key requirements. It’s not just giving dry legal advice, it’s actually taking it that one stage further, so people know what to do with it.”

When Hall took the role in 1999 it was a new position. In fact, the RFU did not even have a chief executive until 1998. Prior to that, there was just a secretary. But when the game became professional in the mid-1990s, things were set to change.

“The RFU had a review of its internal structure and the way it operated, triggered obviously by the change in the game going into the professional era,” he says. “Francis [Baron] was appointed in 1998. He then set up the key executive appointments, including a legal function. Part of the legal function includes company secretarial matters. He gradually filled all those positions. He wanted to link in company secretarial work with the lawyer. And he also decided that it works pretty well tagging on council and HR roles as well.”

As well as his legal roles, Hall also oversees the HR team and the council services team. But as with any new role, the initial period can be challenging. “I guess one of the challenges was trying to work out how things had worked before,” says Hall. “It’s probably fair to say that, even though I’ve been here two and a half years, I still haven’t had time to look at some of the things as much as I’d like to. Initially there were fairly major issues to be looked at, which you can’t just deal with overnight.
“Some contracts were reviewed by the chief executive or a lawyer, others were not. There was no mechanism of approval of contracts; sometimes things slipped through the net,” he adds.

There was also the challenge of not knowing how the RFU had dealt with matters previously. And it was here that Edwin Coe, one of the firm’s external advisers, has come in very handy.

“They assist with a lot of the day-to-day matters on the constitutional side, and they have a very historical relationship with the RFU,” explains Hall. “A partner there has acted for the RFU for many years. Often, when you can’t find out the answer to something within the RFU, whether it’s legal or other information, I know I can pick the phone up to the partner there. And he will say, ‘I remember this happening eight years ago’; and he’ll remember why we came to be in the position we are in on a particular matter. He’s extremely helpful and, as he’s not a City firm, he’s very good value. For what we want him to do, he’s absolutely fantastic.”

For larger matters, Hall instructs another longstanding adviser – Denton Wilde Sapte. “Dentons are at the other end of the spectrum [to Edwin Coe]. They’re the large law firm that the RFU uses for big matters that are particularly important to the RFU. I’ve used them on a number of matters recently.”

Such matters include the two joint venture companies that the RFU has set up in the past couple of years. The first, Twickenham Experience, is the company that provides all the hospitality and catering for the matches at Twickenham Stadium. The more recent joint venture is England Rugby Limited, which is a 50-50 joint venture set up between the RFU and the premiership clubs. It is designed to manage the elite end of the games. Dentons was instructed on both matters, and the RFU hopes to set up further ventures going forward.

As well as Dentons and Edwin Coe, Hall has also instructed Hammonds on intellectual property (IP) and trademark work, and Reading firm Blandy & Blandy on liquor licensing issues. It has also used Olswang on some media work.
“Generally speaking, in terms of external lawyers, I wouldn’t just go to one firm for the sake of going to one firm,” Hall notes. “I’d go horses for courses. When I want IP advice, I’d go to a particular firm with expertise in that area. When I want corporate advice, I’d go for someone with expertise in corporate law. If they happen to come from the same firm, then great. But it’s not always necessarily the case.”

But it is not just rugby that has been taking up Hall’s time over the last 12 months. “We’ve been trying to establish the right to hold music concerts at Twickenham, and last summer did successfully manage to get planning permission for up to three concerts each year,” he says. No concerts have been held up to now, however, partly because of the downturn in the economy, says Hall. But he hopes there will be one – if not three – next year.

But organising the concerts is not going to be his job, he adds with a laugh, so it does not look like he is going to be the legal adviser to any pop stars just yet. Well, at least not until England’s won that 2007 World Cup.
Jonathan Hall
Secretary and legal officer
The Rugby Football Union

Organisation The Rugby Football Union
Sector Sport
Employees Approximately 260
Legal capability One (although some members of the board are also qualified solicitors)
Secretary and legal officer Jonathan Hall
Reporting to Chief executive Francis Baron
Main law firms Blandy & Blandy, Denton Wilde Sapte, Edwin Coe, Hammonds and Olswang