Vicky Mitchell: Capital One

Times have changed at Capital One. Instead of sending legal work straight out to external advisers the in-house lawyers are now almost wholly self-sufficient. By Lorraine Cushnie

Fun budgets, adopt-a-school programmes and leopard-skin prints. For Vicky Mitchell, company secretary and head of legal at Capital One, life is certainly not ordinary. In the nine years she has been with the credit card issuer, Mitchell has dealt with it all, from acquisitions to the company’s trademark-patterned credit cards (including the animal prints). Mitchell and her team have been involved in all areas of Capital One’s business.

In fact, Mitchell says the legal department is one of the few teams that gets to see a project from start to finish. “We get involved at every stage. We’ll review service contracts, TV advertising, direct mailings, call centre scripts and when we hire Alastair McGowan [as the company did for its recent TV campaign], a lawyer will be involved with his agent,” she says.

In the 10 years since it first set up shop in the UK, Capital One has grown to be one of the largest credit card issuers in the UK. It now has a turnover of £550m and employs more than 2,000 associates (Capital One’s term for staff).

Mitchell was one of the first people through the door, joining Capital One nine years ago. She was also the company’s first in-house lawyer in Europe.

Mitchell first became involved with the credit card issuer when she was part of the Denton Wilde Sapte (DWS) team that helped set it up. She decided to move in-house soon after.

But even before her move to Capital One, Mitchell had already enjoyed a number of different careers. She trained as a barrister at Cloisters. “I ended up at the wrong place at the bar. Commercial law is where I am and it’s what my brain was designed to deal with,” she says. She also spent time as a lobbyist for the Financial & Leasing Association before signing up with DWS.

Mitchell now manages a legal department of 20 and a further 10 people in compliance and corporate affairs – a far cry from the early days of her time at Capital One. “Everything was outsourced,” she says. “I was about the sixth person to join Capital One.”

The legal department comprises one specialised employment lawyer and three people working on commercial contracts, while the majority sit in the regulatory advice group. With the new Consumer Credit Bill planned in the UK and the European Commission pushing through a consumer credit directive, regulation is by far the biggest area for Mitchell’s team.

“What we try and do in the regulatory team is make people experts in their field,” she says. “You have to understand the laws really well and you can’t just rely on outside counsel.”

And it is not just getting to grips with the regulatory environment. Capital One also lobbies various organisations through its two trade bodies – Apacs and the British Bankers’ Association.

Data sharing between consumer banks is one area where Capital One is campaigning for more cooperation. With consumer debt on the rise, Mitchell wants to ensure that Capital One only lends money to those who can afford to repay it. “We’d like to see improvement in data sharing for credit purposes, because we don’t want to lend money to people who are on the edge of indebtedness,” she says.

Current accounts are exempt from the current laws on data sharing because they pre-date the legislation, which means the major high street banks have no compulsion to share credit data with other institutions. “The [high street] banks hold the bulk of the data and we’re trying to put pressure on them to share more of that data,” says Mitchell.

With so much of the legal work taken on by the in-house team, Mitchell rarely has the need to instruct outside counsel, but there are a few firms she keeps in her address book.

Clifford Chance acts on Capital One’s securitisation deals, with Simmons & Simmons also picking up some of this work. Slaughter and May advised on the company’s £65m acquisition of independent broker Hfs Group in 2004, while Eversheds is brought in for work in Nottingham, the home of Capital One’s headquarters.

Mitchell is keen to stress that it is not all hard work at Capital One. The company has a community affairs programme in which all associates play an active role. Through the adopt-a-school programme, staff sit and read with pupils and the company also supplies voluntary manpower for the East Midlands call centre during charity fundraising marathon Children In Need. “It just strikes you how generous people are,” she says.

And then there are the fun budgets. Each department head gets money to take their team out for a day away from work once a quarter, and even some of these activities will cross the legal department’s desk. “We often get asked, ‘Are we covered for this?'” jokes Mitchell.

Working at Capital One, Mitchell cannot predict what will land on her desk next.

Vicky Mitchell
Company secretary and head of legal
Capital One (Europe)

Organisation Capital One (Europe)
Sector Finance
£550m £850m
Employees 2,000
Legal capability 20
Company secretary and head of legal Vicky Mitchell
Reporting to Vice-president Sanjiv Yajnik
Main law firms Clifford Chance, Eversheds, Simmons & Simmons, Slaughter and May