As head of legal services at Clydesdale Bank, Michael Webber is pleased to be an integral part of the business – and he still has time for his garden, says Joshua Freedman
The unpretentious Michael Webber clearly loves his job, but one thing he cannot stand about the world of in-house lawyers is the self-serving job titles people give themselves.
“General counsel is a pompous title,” ventures Webber, head of the legal team at Clydesdale Bank.
His predecessor was called general counsel, but when consulted about his title on joining the bank in 2006 Webber opted for the less haughty, if slightly wordier, alternative of head of legal services and company secretary.
In his earlier role at lender Woolwich, his title was chief solicitor, “which I always thought was a bit pompous,” he adds. Neither is he a fan of vice president (legal services) or director of legal services.
“I don’t like ’director’ because it implies you hold a dictatorship,” says Webber. “But [the word] ’services’ is important because we’re a service to the bank. In some other contexts, lawyers busy themselves with finger-wagging. They seem to have the motto ’thou shalt not’, but our job is to help the business get from A to B.”
Webber’s attitude is unsurprising for a lawyer who leaves work at 6pm so he can tend his garden. Although he can be on call at the crack of dawn or earlier (Clydesdale is an independent subsidiary of Melbourne-based National Bank of Australia (NAB)), he tries to show his staff that working in-house deserves its reputation for providing a better work-life balance than private practice.
“I try to set an example to the team – I try to be away by 6pm,” he says.
This gives him time to water his plants and potter around in his garden. If he had not become a lawyer, Webber ventures, he would have “run a nursery. I really do enjoy gardening.”
Sadly for Webber there is one feature of Clydesdale that falls short of a previous employer, Barclays Bank, where he was general counsel for retail from its acquisition of Woolwich in 2000 until his departure for Clydesdale six years later. While Barclays’ 31-storey Canary Wharf headquarters had a garden on top, known as the “living roof”, Webber now has to wait until he gets home before he can quench his thirst for nature.
Lack of an on-site garden aside, Webber is certainly happy he joined Clydesdale five and a half years ago from a much bigger operation. When he left Barclays it had some 250 in-house legal staff; Clydesdale has just 27.
“I feel here that I’m a more integral part of the team,” he says. “In a small organisation I can add greater value. This is an excellent business to be involved in. There’s so much value one can add.”
Webber read for the bar before transferring to the solicitors’ side of the law, working for 13 years in private practice before deciding he wanted to leave the law entirely.
onetheless as a time-filler he took a locum job at Woolwich, covering for a member of staff on maternity leave. Little did he know he would end up as the company’s legal head.
Even if his route was largely unplanned Webber is pleased he moved in-house, as he says he gets a much better perspective on the company than out-of-housers. Why?
“Because you’re an integral part of the business and the business sees you as adding greater value,” he says.
One moment Webber could be chasing up a party that has fallen foul of an agreement, the next attending a strategic discussion.
“I never know what’s coming to my desk,” he says. “I sit on the executive committee of the bank, so it’s not all legal issues. It develops a different side of you. It requires different skills. You’re not confined to advising on the law. That’s a dimension that I found was absent in private practice.”
Webber has to deal with issues that many general counsel would not: negotiating the sponsorship contract with the Scottish Premier League; payment protection insurance mis-selling claims; and the bank’s most famous operation – the production of banknotes, which can raise image rights issues.
He keeps as much work as possible in-house. “We have a duty to keep costs as low as possible,” he says.
However, Clydesdale has strong ties with DLA Piper and earlier this year reviewed its panel, which now totals 14 firms, of which one was not on the roster previously, although the bank has worked with all 14 in the past. The panel also acts for Yorkshire Bank, another NAB subsidiary. Webber selects outside counsel based on a process of written submissions. Unlike at Barclays, there are no beauty parades: an “awful” process, Webber recalls.
How appropriate for a man who is surely one of the industry’s more humble individuals.
Name: Michael Webber
Company: Clydesdale Bank
Position: Head of legal services and company secretary
Reporting to: Chief executive David Thorburn
Employees: More than 8,600
Global legal capability: 27