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With much of Commerzbank’s business based in Germany, its small UK Legal team is carving its own niche. Husnara Begum reports

Last November Commerzbank, Germany’s third-largest listed bank, announced plans to streamline its business in the UK and focus more on Germany. The decision led to 900 job cuts. John Benson and Susan Cooksley, Commerzbank’s joint UK heads of legal, are less than keen to talk about the impact of the bank’s decision to scale back its UK business. However, they are quick to note that the move will not affect the size and make-up of their legal team.

“For the time being we don’t foresee any changes in our role, but like any in-house legal department, we’re constantly adapting to meet the changing requirements of the business,” explains Benson.
This is hardly surprising as Commerz-bank’s UK legal function is already relatively small. The team boasts just nine legal staff and three assistants and there are no immediate plans for growth.

Although Commerzbank’s UK legal team is split by product, Benson argues that the lawyers are versatile. “The team structure is pretty flat as it’s very strong in terms of experience, and the proportion of senior lawyers is high,” says Benson. “One of the advantages of a small team is that it attracts more generalists, who can handle a broader mix of work, than specialists.”

Another major benefit of a small legal team is that the reporting lines are very clear. The UK lawyers report to Benson and Cooksley, who in turn report to Commerzbank’s Frankfurt-based group general counsel Günter Hugger.

“We also share a good relationship with the bank’s general counsel and have regular trips to Frankfurt to meet our opposite numbers there,” says Cooksley.

Cooksley and Benson were promoted to head of Commerzbank’s UK legal function last May following the departure of Richard Laird, who left the bank to return to PricewaterhouseCoopers. Prior to her promotion, Cooksley, the former head of legal for corporate finance, had been with Commerzbank for five years. Benson joined the bank in 2002 from Nomura.

The duo inherited a well-organised team, which already enjoyed a high profile with Commerbank’s internal clients, so there was little need to introduce changes to the way the team was run.

“Our objective is to provide legal services that meet the business requirements – to offer an objective viewpoint and be an integral part of the deal team. And I think we’ve been pretty successful in doing that,” says Cooksley.

Commerzbank last reviewed its legal panel, which comprises Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, CMS Cameron McKenna and Linklaters, in 2001.

Cooksley says the current panel still works well and there are no plans to change it. However, at the end of each calendar year, the bank invites the client relationship partner at each firm to attend a review meeting. “We annually review our relationships with legal advisers and assess our requirements for the forthcoming year,” says Cooksley. “It’s almost like an appraisal, and both the bank and the firms find the process useful,” she adds.

Benson says that although they have not ruled out the possibility of adding more firms to the panel, its current make-up meets the bank’s requirements very well. “There haven’t been significant issues that have meant we’ve needed to change our panel firms,” says Cooksley.

Commerzbank often farms out work to Lovells if the bank’s panel firms are conflicted. Lovells landed its first instruction from Commerzbank in 2001 when it advised the bank on its role as lead arranger and underwriter on Valliant’s bid for UK engineering group Hepworth. However, although that instruction coincided with the last major review Commerzbank undertook of its panel, Lovells was not added to the bank’s law firm roster.

Cooksley declines to comment on why, and argues that the choice of law firm on a particular deal is handled on a case-by-case basis.
The UK legal team typically handles the work generated out of the bank’s day-to-day activities. However, it is rarely asked to advise on Commerzbank’s own account work, as this work is handled by the lawyers in Frankfurt.

Commerzbank’s UK legal team is evidence that size does not always matter. Although small, its neat formation has resulted in Cooksley and Benson being given practically free rein to run the team in whatever way they feel is fit.
Susan Cooksley and John Benson
Joint UK heads of legal

Organisation Commerzbank
Sector Banking
Global Operating Profit €559m (£387.3m)
Employees 30,000
Legal capability Nine in London, 100 in Frankfurt
Joint UK Heads of legal for UK Susan Cooksley and John Benson
Reporting to Group general counsel Günter Hugger
Main law firms Allen & Overy, Clifford Chance, CMS Cameron McKenna and Linklaters