Close call: Kirsty Cooper, Aviva

Kirsty Cooper, group general counsel at Aviva, is on a mission to build closer ties between the insurer’s disparate legal advisers.

Kirsty Cooper
Kirsty Cooper

The appointment of Kirsty Cooper as group general counsel at Aviva marks the start of a period of change in the company’s global legal department.

Having been part of the legal ­function at various Aviva ­subsidiaries since she started at ­General Accident in 1991, Cooper has experienced first-hand the comings and goings of lawyers through ­economic recessions and booms. She has watched the company grow into a global beast and is now ready to put all that ­experience to the test.

At the top of Cooper’s to-do list is a desire to see Aviva’s seven general counsel, who are based in ­jurisdictions around the globe, work together more closely. At the moment they meet on an occasional basis if circumstances bring them together, but Cooper wants the new structure to be more formal.

“We’re going to try to build a ­global legal leadership team,” she reveals. “We have senior people in all our jurisdictions, and the ­global legal leadership team will try to bring all that expertise together.”

The process began with the ­creation of Cooper’s role. In 2002 Aviva separated the general counsel and company secretary positions, with Cooper being invited to deputise for company secretary Graham Jones.

“I felt I actually needed to do the job,” says Cooper, adding that it enabled her to learn the rounded management skills necessary for a group general counsel position.

Those positions were reintegrated in 2007, with Jones as group general counsel. After Jones announced his retirement in August, Cooper was appointed as his successor.

Cooper is responsible for M&A activity, capital markets work and any major litigation Aviva is involved with. She is also responsible for advising the board on any legal activity, as well as keeping members abreast of any ­pending legal issues.

The company’s structure means that its general insurance business has its own general counsel, Richard Spicker, while Jenny Wilman acts as general counsel in the life assurance division.
“I’m looking to make the positions much more closely aligned to reflect the combined UK region,” says ­Cooper, anticipating more change on the horizon.

The UK legal department is broken down further into eight divisions, including UK property legal, personal finance and healthcare legal.

As for Aviva’s global legal heads, Cooper would also like to see them become chummier. Each legal chief (there are seven based around the globe, including Spicker and Wilman in the UK) reports to their own chief financial officer. In addition, they have a responsibility to keep Cooper aware of events.

All this will have to be done while the company is dealing with a wave of regulation, including the implications of the Walker Review, which was ­published in November last year; the EU Solvency II initiative, which places new capital obligations on the ­general insurance markets; and the Bribery Act 2010, of which details were released by the Ministry of ­Justice ­earlier this month (14 September).

“The amount of regulation means we’ve been a lot more proactive about lobbying,” Cooper says, adding that the support of the GC100 group has been “very good for that”.

Where possible, Aviva likes to keep legal work in-house, but Cooper recognises that this is not always ideal. The insurer most regularly instructs Clifford Chance and Slaughter and May, but will turn to Addleshaw ­Goddard on contractual matters and Linklaters for asset management and company secretary work.

“The panel’s tight and has been reduced over the years,” Cooper says. “We have a panel review annually.”

This enables the insurer to keep an eye on costs and means that firms are competitive.

Cooper says the company expects “some kind of ­discount or value-added services”, continuing: “Fixed or capped fees are more common now, and we’re not being charged for all the work carried out. And firms are a lot more flexible about secondees. It gives them an understanding of how we work.”

Cooper’s to-do list is long and ­complicated, but she has been tasked with effecting serious change within Aviva’s legal department.

“I’m really looking forward to the challenge of building a world-class legal department,” she maintains.

This means streamlining structures, improving efficiency and creating a global legal team. The challenge for the insurer’s long-term legal advisers is to keep up with her.

Name: Kirsty Cooper

Company: Aviva

Industry: Insurance

Turnover: £45.1bn

Employees: 46,000

Legal capability:39 lawyers and 14 legal executives

UK legal spend (excluding claims costs): £14m

Main external law firms:Addleshaw Goddard, Clifford Chance, Linklaters, Slaughter and May