Private chancer

Anne Baldock has been a PFI pioneer, is on the A&O board and has even revolutionised the office layout. But she’s not the iron lady she may seem

Anne Baldock was clearly a great fan of the ‘show-and-tell’ table at primary school. Or perhaps memories of one Monday morning when she did not have any evidence of how she had spent the weekend still haunt her.

Because now, it seems, she spends her working life producing pieces for the Allen & Overy (A&O) show-and-tell table. Partly because she is a PFI lawyer, so the urban landscape becomes her portfolio, and partly because she keeps forgetting to sit on her hands when people ask for volunteers.

It seems she spoke up in the painful silence when the management wanted someone to sort out the move of the corporate and banking departments to new offices in London’s Wood Street. Baldock says it needed doing, but she chose the hottest potato she could find when it came to layout because the new office, in which we talk, is open-plan. Not just for secretaries and all the people whose egos do not rely on having their own four walls, but for everyone. That’s right – partners too.

And it is astonishingly quiet. So much so that I am loathe to open my mouth just in case the whole office turns around to look at me. It is like a law library the week before finals, although I cannot spot anyone coming down from a Pro Plus overdose. Baldock was determined to dispel the preconception that lawyers cannot work in open-plan offices and, it seems, she has been proved right.

“As a group we prefer working this way,” she asserts, adding that younger lawyers who would not have wanted to disturb the scarier older partners before now quite readily approach them for advice.

Sorting out offices is not the only thing Baldock has volunteered for. She has recently been re-elected to the board. This woman really has a problem with saying no.

From what I have so far written, I have made Baldock sound like the sort of class swot that forces everyone else into the role of sulky teenager. Not at all. In her own words, she is a doer and says that her role as a director on the board can be quite frustrating as it is a non-executive position.

“But I thought the board needed ‘doers’ and not just committee people,” she says. “I still do quite a lot of transactions and it’s important to have that mix. If you drop too far away from the coal face you forget what it’s all about. I strongly believe that you have to balance this place and life.”

That can be done, she claims, quite easily if teamwork is encouraged in which players are interchangeable. Working in a big City firm should make that easier, not harder.

As Baldock talks, it dawns on me that she is talking as if we are just having a conversation in the pub. Lawyers usually speak in interview or PR mode, so it comes as a shock to hear someone talking normally. She speaks quickly, interrupting herself, and accompanied by the sort of animated expressions that imply she is not precious about her image. Having become used to an open-plan office, she is not in the slightest bit fazed by the constant stream of visitors to the coffee machine behind her. And she laughs constantly, a wide, open laugh.

When it comes to the work-life balance, Baldock has it slightly easier in that Graham Vintner, head of projects at A&O, is her husband, so at the very least she gets to see him. When I mention this, she backs away slightly and becomes wary, before relating that, when they got together they went to tell the senior partner because at the time it was very much not the done thing. Apparently, he was a bit bemused as to why they were telling him.

So how do they make the demands of the office sit happily with their homelife, complete with three kids? “We never coordinate anything,” laughs Baldock. “That’s never worked. It’s actually helped working in the same place, although we’ve never worked on the same deal.” This, she explains, is partly so that, while one of them is frantic the other can take more of the load, and also because they would probably row at the deals table. She relates with a quiet pride that she has only once been away at the same time as Vintner for work purposes.

I later am told that the couple were put forward by A&O to appear in a BBC programme about the work-life balance. But, unfortunately for the camera crew that trooped down to their house, the relaxed atmosphere did not make for good TV and the idea was spiked. Perhaps this is all spin on behalf of the A&O feelgood factor squad, but Baldock does not really seem the powerhouse corporate mother type.

She is one of a few lawyers who can claim to have been involved with PFI since the beginning because she worked on the Bridgend Prison deal that started the whole idea. Since then, she says, the public sector has been educated in what the private sector wants, but Baldock does not accept the criticisms that have arisen in recent years that the deal has swung too far in the private sector’s favour.

With the new standard agreements she argues: “It’s not a great deal for the private or public sector, and you could do better if you’re going to sit down for 18 months. But you do have to look at this stuff in the round and say hospitals and roads are being built that would not have been otherwise.”

The proof of the PFI pudding, says Baldock, is that countries that initially pooh-poohed the idea are now starting to do their own PFI deals. This is a trend that she thinks will grow over the next few years to become the main provider of work.

Back home, she is looking to the Ministry of Defence to push out the greatest number of deals. “People say the NHS will, but I don’t know because it’s done an awful lot already,” she muses.

When it comes to the show-and-tell table of life, Baldock says she does enjoy being able to point out her projects to her children. “I remember when we were working on the Docklands Light Railway in 1996, talking to a guy from Mowlem at the closing when he was offering me champagne, and I was thinking that I just wanted to go home. He said he couldn’t understand lawyers, because in a deal they were there all night every night, but at the end of the day he was able to tell his grandchildren, ‘I built that’. I told him that lawyers did exactly the same.”

On one family holiday in Portugal, her daughter stood at the front of a queue of people telling everyone who passed that the bridge they could see was built by her daddy. Bridges, Baldock argues tongue-in-cheek, are better than tunnels from a showing off point of view, because they are easier to spot.

She is particularly proud of having been involved in the Second Severn Crossing. Fortunately, she had nothing to do with the rather strange pistachio green colour that the bridge is painted – although she argues that it is actually blue.
Anne Baldock
Allen and Overy