Woolwich Building Society underwent a major upheaval when it floated in 1997. Its transition from building society to plc has had a mixed outcome.

While the company’s results have been favourable since the conversion, Woolwich has lost ground to competitors in key areas, specifically in the UK insurance market.

It is estimated that Woolwich’s share of the insurance market has dropped from 8 to 3 per cent, prompting rumours in the City of a merger to bolster its presence.

The change in the company’s status has led to a number of lawyers being added to the in-house legal team to cope with an ever-growing workload.

Michael Webber, acting chief solicitor at Woolwich, says: “Now that the company is a public concern areas such as the regulatory regime are different.”

Webber says the in-house team, which was runner-up In-house Team of the Year in this year’s The Lawyer Awards, has also taken back much of the repossession and conveyancing work which previously was put out to external advisers. “It makes sense in terms of commercial reality,” he says.

As well as taking over this area of law, the department holds a tight rein over the legal work kept in-house, an approach common to the Woolwich.

Webber says that while Linklaters advised on commercial issues of the conversion, “we also undertook a co-ordinating and supervisory role”.

He adds: “Obviously a conversion takes an extraordinary amount of organisation. Here legal services is very well placed. We can co-ordinate all the various requirements of each department and pick up on things external firms wouldn’t necessarily know.”

At the moment, however, much of the legal department’s attention is taken up with issues arising from each of the company’s subsidiaries, which include Woolwich Insurance Services and its life assurance unit.

The head office in Kent also gives advice to its Italian and French subsidiaries, although Webber adds: “We use Clifford Chance in both of those regions. It has taken on the work in recent years.”

Internationally, Clifford Chance also helped the in-house team on Woolwich’s recent joint venture with US mortgage lender Countrywide.

Webber says: “We have spent many long hours on that. There were a number of agreements in place which we in the office and Clifford Chance were working on.

“It entailed many a late evening here since Countrywide is based in LA and there is an eight-hour time difference. Putting together the agreements was interesting.”

As well as coping with its new status as a public company, the managers of the legal department added to the staff workload by undergoing a stringent process to gain the Law Society’s Lexcel quality mark and the ISO 9001 certification, awarded by Lloyd’s Register Quality Assurance.

According to the company, the legal department is the first in-house team to be awarded Lexcel, a best practice standard set by the Law Society.

Alan Cross, business manager in legal services at Woolwich, says: “Initially, the biggest barrier to us undertaking this was, believe it or not, our staff, who questioned where we were going to find the time to do it. It has been difficult, but at the end of the day we have felt the benefit.”

As well as being profoundly affected by the change of pace caused by going public, the in-house legal team recently lost its head of legal Sue Scott.

Scott left two months ago for personal reasons and the department is now being headed by Webber. Webber says that while he is extremely busy at the moment on a project, he is enjoying his time at the helm, stating: “I like a good challenge.”

Michael Webber
Head of legal

Organisation Woolwich
Sector Banking
FTSE 100 ranking 59
Market capitalisation £5.8bn
Employees 5000
Legal function 12 lawyers, 23 support staff
Head of legal Michael Webber
Reporting to Richard Meddings, financial director
Main location for lawyers Bexleyheath, Kent
Main law firms Clifford Chance, Linklaters & Alliance, Allen & Overy, Thomas Eggar Church Adams