In these cost-conscious times, there’s a lot to be said for not splashing the cash unnecessarily. And Carol Hui, general counsel of road and rail infrastructure support services giant Amey, couldn’t agree more.
Carol Hui and I meet in the Bleeding Heart restaurant in Clerkenwell. She likes the French fare, but says her loyalty is with the cuisine of her native Hong Kong. As the intrepid journalist, I try snails for the first time – but have food envy of her scallops.
Hui attempts to describe for me the texture of the dish I am about to eat. “They’re kind of chewy,” she says, but seems dissatisfied with the inability of the English language to convey gastronomic nuances the way her native Cantonese does.
Hui’s language learning mirrors a cosmopolitan career. She started off at Slaughter and May’s Hong Kong corporate finance department. This was the 1980s and mainland China was a frontier land abounding with opportunity, so she learnt Mandarin.
But then, opting for quality of work over the potential remunerative advantages of Beijing or Shanghai, Hui moved to Slaughters’ London office. From there she went in-house at British Gas and TDG, before taking up her current role as general counsel at Amey in 2000.
Three years later, Hui found herself closely involved in the takeover by Spanish infrastructure giant Ferrovial. Increasing contact with Spanish colleagues means she is now adding another language to her repertoire, as well as developing a penchant for the country’s cuisine.
When Hui took on this newly created role, there was no in-house department to speak of. Legal services were procured on a piecemeal basis through the various commercial managers. She built up the team to its current capacity of ten. Hui makes her lawyers calculate exactly how many hours they spend on a transaction rather than farming it out, so that she can ascertain the savings.
“It’s hundreds of thousands of pounds every year,” she says.
Amey has a roster of 10 or so relationship firms, but the bulk of external advice is from a handful that act on projects when the company operates as part of a consortium. Historically it has gone to Allen & Overy, Ashurst, CMS Cameron McKenna and Pinsent Masons. The latter also does employment and pensions work, while Eversheds and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer work on M&A.
The level of proactiveness varies among relationship partners, although Hui is discreet about naming and shaming. In contrast, she lauds DLA Piper partner Mark Swindell for being “entrepreneurial” in seeking out commercial opportunities for Amey. The firm has “come to the fore” acting on PFI defence and M&A work.
Hui only works with capped fees, but what happens if law firms exceed those caps? “I would need to have a quiet word with them,” she says.
Although Hui thinks firms are becoming more competitive on fees, she lambasts some law firms’ opulence. “You go into some firms’ lobbies and it’s like going into a station!” she exclaims, pointing out that bigger is not necessarily better.
Recently, Amey has struck up relationships with Wragge & Co, which is advising it on the Birmingham Highways PFI. According to Hui, DLA Piper, Pinsents and Trowers & Hamlins are able to “read Amey’s clients well” because they act for some of them.
Is this because they add value, as the marketing-speak goes? “That’s right, but there should be a better word to describe it,” Hui says.
Again English seems too poor, or perhaps too indirect, to convey the desired meaning. But conscious as ever of the inefficiency of duplicating tasks, she says: “I’ll leave that to you – you’re the journalist.”
Name: Carol Hui
Industry: Support services
Position: Executive director and general counsel
Reporting to: Chief executive Mel Ewell
Number of employees: 10,000
Legal capability: 10
Annual legal spend: £3m
Main firms: Allen & Overy, Ashurst, CMS Cameron McKenna, DLA Piper, Eversheds, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Morgan Cole, Pinsent Masons,
Shadbolt, Trowers & Hamlins and Wragge & Co
Carol Hui’s CV
1979: LLB, University of Hong Kong
1979-80: PCLL, University of Hong Kong
1980-88: Trainee, then solicitor, Slaughter and May
1989-95: Head of corporate legal services, British Gas
1995-97: Deputy general counsel, BG Group
1997-2000: Director of legal services and company secretary, TDG
director and general counsel, Amey