Robert Walters group head of legal: Ripple effect

After an early career shock a strong sense of decency now drives Richard Harris, group head of legal at recruiter Robert Walters, as he reshapes his team

In the Feng Shui-designed Covent Garden offices of recruitment agency Robert Walters, group head of legal Richard Harris is working hard to bring his team into the 21st century. It has been almost two years since Harris started his mission to align the legal team with the business and things are looking good.

It could all have ended differently for Harris. One of his early experiences in-house involved the winding up of a company for which he had worked in-house, which had been forced into administration after building up a debt of $2.2bn (£1.4bn).

“We were trying to find a rescue deal – it was a fantastic company,” he says, recalling the fateful day. “They had a network operations centre office in Maidenhead which is where the Emea business was run from and we knew it was going into administration. It was my birthday and I was hoping I could finish early. When I arrived at the office that morning the creditors had turned up with a digger and were putting breeze blocks around the car park stopping anyone getting out. We also couldn’t let people in. We had to negotiate with Toys R Us to allow people to drive over its flowerbed so our people could get out.”


At that point Harris was only two years qualified. It was an episode that put him at the heart of the crisis and tested his ability to manage. He calls it his ‘Truman Show day’, the day that has most influenced his career. It has shaped his character as an in-house lawyer.

He talks constantly about the need to be fair – to his own lawyers, to his external panel advisers, to the lawyers he acts against and, most importantly, to the business he works for.

Do the right thing

Harris is all too aware that the relationship with his external advisers, which include Taylor Wessing and Squire Sanders, is changing. The renewed focus on value-added services has placed more control in his hands, although he says the relationship must be fair to all.


“I prefer a partnership relationship,” he says. “I’m surprised when a junior lawyer sits in on a call and doesn’t really add anything, and it’s costly. There’s still a concept of taking the trainee to the meeting and charging for their time – they’re there to generate revenue. I don’t like seeing it on the bill. We want fair billing.”

He appreciates that firms need to profit from their clients, however, and, when talking about in-house secondees, he comments that there is a risk of wanting too much from external advisers.

“We’re hearing that some are taking it too far with secondees,” he says sympathetically. “You don’t want to squeeze firms too hard on fees or people, for example, fixed fees – we want to do it right.”

Fairness also runs to the heart of contract negotiations with the agency’s clients. Robert Walters’ Resource Solutions business deals with recruitment process outsourcing for big clients. The legal team is central, negotiating large employment contracts with clients including Deutsche Bank, Barclays and Colt Financial Services.

“We’re selling a complicated business,” Harris argues. “We have people on-site, our own HR team and our own computer software. We manage the tenders and agencies and we do their recruitment. We often know the legal teams in [the client’s] place before we get to the table. We’ll have had contract negotiations before we get there. We have heavy contracts and tough negotiations. It’s important not to fall out before you’ve started. The goal is to work together.”

World play

It is difficult enough doing this on a domestic level, but when you are working across multiple jurisdictions with varying employment laws it can be demanding.

“One minute I’m doing outsourcing work in the UK and the next it’s an employment law dispute in Australia, while we’re also familiarising ourselves with Japanese law,” he says. “At the same time, you know you’re not on your own. You have to be in meetings where people want your opinion on a management -level. Sometimes it gets to 4pm and I haven’t done a thing on my list.”

Harris’ team is small, meaning the demands on his in-house lawyers can be great. After he joined the company he restructured his department, merging the Robert Walters team with the Resource Solutions department.

He has a three-strong senior team in London, with another lead lawyer working part-time in Singapore assisted by a Chinese lawyer, another in South Africa, one in Australia and, for the first time, the company is recruiting a senior European lawyer to be based in its Paris office.

It is clear that Harris is proud of his team and is keen to see less experienced members succeed. Earlier this year he took on a trainee in-house. Harris says the one-time recruitment agent had worked for the agency and was looking for a new direction. He had heard Harris was recruiting a lawyer and approached him with a view to doing his solicitors’ LPC course. He started the training in September.

Given his small team, Harris relies on external firms. Taylor Wessing, he says, “are my go-to firm”.

He is also keen on developing direct relationships with the bar and believes that doing so can offer some big cost savings.

“We’re looking at setting up a bar panel,” he says. “We’ve used Old Square Chambers and Blackstone Chambers in the past. It makes sense for us to go direct to the bar.”

There is also sense, he says, in using higher ranking firms for specialist jobs such as opening in new jurisdictions. When Robert Walters opened in Indonesia it turned to Baker & McKenzie.

“We’ve used Bakers in a couple of jurisdictions – in Indonesia, I believe, it is the biggest firm,” he adds. “You can’t take chances when you have zero knowledge of the jurisdiction. With Bakers you know where you are.”

Harris arrived at Robert Walters to find a department distant from the business. In the past two years he has restructured it and made it a central plank. He is reshaping external relationships and forging links with the bar. He has overhauled the department without incurring the obstacles that would face a private practice lawyer.

“If you walk into our office you feel that these are people who will treat you properly,” he says.

This is at the heart of Harris’ ethos and is an approach that has helped him succeed.

Name: Richard Harris

Title: Group head of legal

Reporting to: Chief executive, Robert Walters

Number of employees: 1,900

Company turnover: £528m (2011)

Legal capability: 10 (London, Singapore and Sydney)

Main external law firms (UK): Taylor Wessing, Squires Sanders, Travers Smith

Belinda Brooke

Belinda Brooke

Legal and HR director, PageGroup

Many may still regard the recruitment sector as an unregulated free-for-all but that is far from the truth.

Age-old stereotypes around the role of the agent mean that recruitment consultants can be trapped between the expectations of work-seekers, who look to them as facilitators, and those of employers, who want the right candidates to fill their roles and expect recruiters to be gatekeepers.

This tension produces many legal challenges and makes the work of the in-house legal team both fraught and stimulating.

In the past few years recruiters have seen a surge in legislation targeting or affecting their day-to-day operations. Some of this has brought positive change, but it has also increased red tape, which has done little to enhance quality of service and a lot to inhibit the sleek operation of an industry trying to respond to the fast-paced demands of the employment market.

One of the greatest challenges for any lawyer in the recruitment industry today is the misunderstanding around the employment status of temporary workers and where liability for their actions lies. When agreeing terms, negotiations often snag on the client’s desire to place contractual liability on the recruiter for matters over which they have no control and for which they cannot, generally, obtain insurance cover.

The recruitment company controls the worker’s day-to-day working arrangements; pay rate, paid holiday, absence, complaints and so on. The client controls the ‘whats’, ‘wheres’ and ‘hows’ of the work done. Neither party has overall control, so neither should be the employer in law. This does not affect the temporary worker’s work-related rights, which remain intact, but it does have a profound effect on where liability for their actions lies.

Many clients believe that to solve the liability question the recruiter must be the employer in law, but that is not the answer.

Employing the temporary worker under a contract of employment does not grant the recruiter day-to-day control of their work so the insurance position is unchanged.

Reaching an understanding with a client around these matters so that a negotiation can move forward is often an arduous task, but all the more rewarding when resolved.