Director of legal at HomeServe Benjamin Scott found a rather haphazard legal function when he took over, but soon got to work on creating a single workable unit.
HomeServe director of legal Benjamin Scott admits he has been on a steep learning curve since joining the company from Marks & Spencer (M&S) in 2008.
Scott had worked at the retail giant since 2000, joining as an in-house lawyer but eventually working his way up to become head of commercial contracts. After eight years he was intent on taking the next step in his career by landing a head of legal role, but felt opportunities with M&S were limited.
He arrived at the FTSE250 home insurer in March 2008, relocating from London to the company’s headquarters in Walsall. He encountered a legal department very different to the one he had left behind.
There was no central legal team and the lawyers instead worked for various HomeServe subsidiaries. One of Scott’s first jobs was to convince the board that the legal function should be merged into a single unit.
“We had a review of the legal function and came to the conclusion there was no point in having it split,” he says. “It was ineffective.”
Two lawyers resigned shortly after the team was restructured. It was then that Scott embarked on a year-long recruitment drive that saw six lawyers arrive from Eversheds, Pinsent Masons, Shoosmiths and West Bromwich Building Society.
“Experience and background wasn’t a huge issue, it was more about what kind of person they were,” Scott explains. “We wanted lawyers who had a willingness to learn. Everybody says they are, but actually taking on board what’s being said is another thing. The guys here listen, understand, then act.
“We’re a very close team and there’s no histrionics and no diva behaviour. I have two rules: no bullying and no talking about people behind their backs. If you have a problem then come to me.”
Aside from restructuring the legal function there were other challenges awaiting Scott. One was that there was no centralised system for archiving contracts (a legacy from the split legal function) and documents were scattered across various offices.
“I did an internal amnesty saying if anything looks like a contract send it to me,” he relates.
The process involved 1,500 documents being tracked down, scanned and uploaded into a new electronic contract management system.
The team also implemented a wide-ranging review of its top 100 suppliers in the UK to establish which relationships did not have contracts in place. The same process is now being undertaken with suppliers in Europe and the US.
Scott has also centralised the use of all outside counsel. Previously different parts of the business had instructed a multitude of legal advisers without consulting the in-house legal team. Scott and his team are now involved in all interactions with outside counsel, helping to reduce legal spend and control the quality of advise.
While HomeServe’s legal function may not have been as sophisticated as M&S’s, for someone who prides himself on his hands-on style Scott clearly relishes the challenge.
“It’s been a steep learning curve,” he says. “It’s a very different business and after the experience of an environment such as M&S it was quite a shock. You expect things to be in place and sometimes they aren’t. For me that’s a huge attraction, and it means that if something isn’t in place then you do it yourself. You roll your sleeves up and get on with it.”
Beefing up the legal team means far more work is now handled in-house. Of the 30 acquisitions carried out by the company last year, for example, seven were handled by Scott and his team, allowing the company to make big savings on legal fees.
External advisers are now used only for M&A work that is too big for Scott’s department to handle alone. Also, the team does not have
any litigation experience in-house and will also use outside counsel for employment matters.
The company does not have a formal panel, but in the UK uses Pinsent Masons and Slaughter and May and in the US works with Blank & Meenan, Morgan Lewis and Nixon Peabody. It is currently undertaking a review of its advisers in Europe, but in the past it has used Ashurst and Hammonds.
For those firms hoping to clinch places, Scott is well aware of the potential pitfalls in client-solicitor relationships and judges a firm on more than just the honeymoon period.
“The initial relationship’s always fantastic and the firm’s always very keen, but after a few years you can get taken for granted and sometimes you see service levels going down. If that happened,” he warns, “then I’d begin talking to other firms.”
Name: Benjamin Scott
Position: Director of legal
Company turnover: £370m
Number of employees: 3,200
Legal capability: Seven
Main external law firms: Pinsent Masons, Nixon Peabody, Slaughter and May
Benjamin Scott’s CV
1989-92: LLB (Hons), University of the West of England
1993: LPC, College Of Law, York
1993-96: Trainee and assistant solicitor, Freeth Cartwright
1996: Assistant solicitor, Veale Wasbrough
1996-2000: Assistant solicitor, Hammonds
2000-08: In-house lawyer, and later head of commercial contracts, Marks & Spencer
2008-present:Director of legal, HomeServe