As far as lawyers’ habitats go, a former toy factory off Brick Lane in the East End of London is surely not natural. The cavernous space is kitted out in the latest range of office furniture that would be the envy of the coolest of West End PR agencies.
Across the open-plan floors designers are hunched behind their Apple computers, refining the latest lampshade design for the style-conscious upwardly mobile classes.
Nevertheless, Habitat group legal counsel Tatiana Desjobert and deputy group general counsel Kulpash Patel seem content enough, although Desjobert does complain a little about raucous drunks hanging around the sidestreets after dark.
When Desjobert joined Habitat less than two years ago, it was her first in-house role at a retail company. Before Habitat, she spent years in various in-house legal roles at large companies and private practices in London and Paris.
She says it took some time for the commercial people to get used to having a lawyer involved. “In retail you have to deal with very creative people, but they’re often not very structured,” she explains. “You have to try to educate the business people.”
Desjobert is triple-qualified in England and Wales, France and the Louisiana bar and leads the entire global legal team at Habitat. Despite her experience, she often finds her knowledge stretched.
Habitat has its own retail outlets in the UK, France, Germany and Spain, employing around 2,050 staff. Furthermore, franchises operate in more than a dozen other countries, including most of Europe, as well as Indonesia, Thailand, Turkey and New Zealand. Many products are manufactured overseas in places such as China, which requires supplier agreements and due diligence. And trademark infringement actions can spring up anywhere in the world.
The recruitment of Patel as a one-year-PQE real estate assistant from Reed Smith was, therefore, much needed. He had no trademark experience but Desjobert hired him anyway and Patel has taken a weight off her shoulders, dealing with a large portion of the day-to-day commercial and trademark work.
Another benefit to Patel’s arrival was that he brought with him established relationships with lawyers at Reed Smith and other UK firms. Reed Smith now handles much of Habitat’s UK work, alongside Lovells, Walker Morris and others.
The work Patel and Desjobert handle is varied, but the mainstays are the licence agreements with designers and negotiating with the celebrities who are endorsing or designing Habitat’s popular ‘very important product’ range, which includes Daniel Radcliffe’s ‘magic chair bed’ and Manolo Blahnik’s stylised shoehorn, one of the top sellers. All the celebs have very different demands in their contracts, some more diva-like than others.
Recently, Habitat’s Greek franchise went bankrupt, resulting in litigation to reclaim money owed to Habitat by the franchisee. A new franchise has recently opened.
The London Crossrail link has also been keeping the team on its toes. Patel has been petitioning Parliament about building the tunnel through the backyard of one of Habitat’s warehouses, making it almost unusable.
The fact that the word ‘habitat’ operates as a descriptive term in many languages also causes headaches, resulting in an ever-increasing list of trademarked classes of interests.
IP and design rights are also a thorny issue. The team has recently redesigned its IP questionnaire, which is sent to all suppliers as an additional safeguard against an externally designed Habitat chair looking too similar to another designer’s chair. Ultimately, all chairs are similar on a functional level so design rights often come down to a tough judgement call.
Although much of the work is handled in-house, external firms sometimes assist on pieces of discrete advice and in foreign jurisdictions, particularly in France where Desjobert says she cannot keep up with the constantly changing labour law. “There’s lots of litigation in France,” she says, adding that the low cost of bringing a claim means that design rights infringement and employment claims can be rife.
Desjobert laments that legal budget restraints are always an issue in retail. “We don’t have a huge budget as there is in banking,” she says. Desjobert is not in favour of being billed on an hourly rate because costs invariably become too expensive and she says discounts on rates are often possible.
Having built a small, efficient team around her, though, certainly makes the job easier. And quite fun too.
Name: Tatiana Desjobert
Title: Group legal counsel
Reporting to: Group chief financial officer Christian Rojkjaer
Number of employees: 2,050
Legal spend: £200,000
Legal capability: Two
Main law firms: Cabinet Beau de Loménie, Kuits Steiner Levy, Lovells, Reed Smith, Walker Morris.
Tatiana Desjobert’s CV
1980: Sorbonne, Degree in Russian
1982: University of Paris II School of Law, LLM
1984: Tulane University School of Law, New Orleans, LLM
Work history: 1989-96: Senior associate, head of Moscow office and consultant on Russian bureau, Francis Lefebvre, Paris
1997-98: Senior associate, CMS Cameron McKenna, London
1998-2000: Senior counsel, Exxon Mobil
2000-05: Senior legal adviser, legal counsel and underwriter, Aon
2006: Lawyer, Allianz Cornhill Insurance
2006-present: Group legal counsel, Habitat