John Southworth

Ryan Dunleavy talks to John Southworth, a man who is making the unusual move from in-house to join a law firm as head of Nabarro Nathanson’s upstream oil and gas team

John Southworth is a man who does not follow convention. This week he leaves Marathon Oil and Gas as its legal manager to head the upstream oil and gas team at Nabarro Nathanson.

It is an unusual step. Most lawyers who cross the threshold between working in-house and in a law firm tend to move from the latter to the former.

But Southworth is making this transition in reverse. When asked why he is moving in this direction, he says his career cannot go any further in-house without taking on a role that would take him away from the main reason why he became a lawyer.

He explains: “Developing my career further at Marathon would mean leaving the law behind, so I decided to leave Marathon behind instead. Going to Nabarros means I can progress my career while remaining in law.”

He adds: “I love the law, and at Nabarros I am looking forward to being exposed to more deals and more clients. Throughout my career I only dealt with one client at a time. Now I can deal with as many as come my way.”

This is no mean feat considering the complex area of law in which he specialises. Upstream oil and gas law covers the exploration, extraction and development of oil and gas sources, and incorporates most areas of law from property to contract.

Downstream law focuses on electricity and distribution, and at Nabarros is headed by Robert Tudway, the overall head of the energy department.

Southworth says he likes upstream work because it requires a highly imaginative mind.

He explains: “What I love is that when I started upstream work there were no precedents. We had to solve problems from scratch. It was immense fun and was like playing three-dimensional chess.

“There are not as many blank-sheet cases nowadays, but sometimes they do arise. That is when I am at my happiest.”

Southworth certainly has enough experience in the field to appreciate its inherent complications.

He qualified as an in-house lawyer for Chevron Petroleum UK in 1977, before joining British National Oil Corporation two years later. He then moved to Saxon Oil in 1984 and ended up at Marathon in 1986, where he was made head of legal six years later.

But energy law has changed since Southworth began his long career.

He says: “All areas of energy law are changing. It is more litigious than I have ever known it. I have hardly ever instructed counsel before, but I have been in four or five litigations in the last 12 months.

“Before it would be rare to have one. Now the money is so big that parties are arguing over things more, and the oil industry is in a bit of a quagmire economically anyway.”

He adds: “One of the biggest problems is that drilling rigs have been contracted but cutbacks have meant that a lot of companies that have hired them are trying to break the contracts. There are lots of potential litigations along these lines at the moment.”

But Southworth is positive about his role in an increasingly fast moving area of law, saying: “I will embrace the challenges that the industry continues to offer.”

Despite being extremely serious about his career, Southworth says that he takes a soft approach to people and he sees himself as a bit of a comedian.

He says: “I am not a hard man. I like to talk to people and gain their respect. I enjoy going through issues with people and trying to help them. That is the way everyone deserves to be treated.

“And that is the only way people will learn things, especially in a complex industry such as this.

“Some lawyers get aggressive, but that is not my style.”
John Southworth
Head of oil and gas
Nabarro Nathanson