Covering the bases: Monica Risam, Aviva

Monica Risam, general counsel for the European arm of insurance giant Aviva, is aiming to create a unified legal panel across the continent, says Katy Dowell

Monica Risam
Monica Risam

When she was appointed group general counsel at insurance giant Aviva Kirsty Cooper was determined to bring about change aimed at binding the global legal function together.

A year on and she has created the ­position of general counsel for Aviva Europe, appointing Monica Risam to lead the new function.

At the top of Risam’s to-do list is creating a Europe-wide legal panel for the insurer. On a global basis the company regularly turns to Clifford Chance, Slaughter and May and ­Linklaters for advice on major ­matters, yet no such panel exists for the insurer’s European operations.

Risam says Aviva wants to get more out of its legal advisers, so she is reassessing how firms are instructed on what she labels the “big-bucket issues” of M&A, litigation and data protection.

“We have deep domain expertise within the Aviva legal team so we manage the usual bread-and-butter work internally and seek to go to external firms where we would rely on them to be specialists in a particular area” she explains, adding: “As part of my due diligence, I’m reviewing where the current [advisory] firms have represented us and assessing where we have gaps or could ­benefit from using other firms.”

It is no secret that insurers are ­putting pressure on firms to become more innovative in their pricing structures, and Risam believes this is the right approach.

“We view it as a long-term relationship,” she says of panel firms. “We’ve had a good track record of getting value from the firms that do work for group. I want to see a similar approach in the relationships we’re building for Aviva Europe.”

On a European level Risam says it is time to think about whether it might be better to instruct local firms on local issues and European firms on European ones.
“It’s about looking at how we can work better as a group,” she muses.

The panel review will not conclude until early next year. In the ­meantime Risam has been tasked with bringing together her disparate team from her base in the City.
In her previous role as general counsel for GE Capital Risam was based remotely from the senior ­management team. She believes this experience will be valuable in ­unifying her 75-strong Aviva team, which is spread throughout Europe.

The legal functions in Aviva’s key European markets, known internally as ’five plus two’, come under Risam’s remit. The five are France, Spain, ­Ireland, Italy and Poland and the two are Russia and Turkey. There are ­further bases in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Romania.

“We’re driving the development of an integrated legal team for Europe. I’ve been given a blank page to create an integrated legal function infrastructure that will enable us to ­simplify our processes.”

It is easy to understand why. Risam says that, by streamlining the European legal teams, lawyers operating in separate jurisdictions will be able to work together more effectively.
“It’s about building on what we’ve done in the group, getting a better understanding of who we’re using, who we’re instructing and who’s being proactive in their advice,” she explains.

Despite only being appointed in July, Risam has already conducted three site visits around Europe, spending days with regional teams, meeting the firms they instruct and getting to know relationship managers.

She says remote management is only possible if she is in regular contact with her lawyers across Europe. “Sometimes picking up the phone and calling rather than sending an email can make all the difference, especially when you’re working across diverse cultures,” she says.

The company will hold its first legal leadership meeting in September, when all of its lawyers will converge to share challenges and solutions.

There are two main themes on the agenda: Solvency II and the Bribery Act. The EU Solvency II initiative will place new capital obligations on the general insurance (GI) market. Earlier this year Aviva announced the reorganisation of its 12 general insurance companies into one UK GI operation. Risam will have to ensure that the company complies with the initiative across Europe.

Prior to her arrival at Aviva Cooper hired Claire Valentine as European company secretary. Risam and ­Valentine will work together to create a simplified governance framework across Europe. “We’ve set some tight internal timetables, but we’re meeting them,” she says.

It is clear that Risam has big ­ambitions and that Aviva has given her the opportunity to realise them. Creating her own panel will be an invaluable experience, not only for Risam but also for the tender firms, which will need to think creatively to win those coveted appointments.

Name: Monica Risam

Company: Aviva

Position: Aviva Europe general counsel

Industry: Insurance

Reporting to: Aviva group general ­counsel Kirsty Cooper

Turnover: £45.1bn

Employees: 46,000

Annual group legal spend: £14m

Legal capability: 75 lawyers (for European arm)

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