In-house interview: RSC – Order of play

The Royal Shakespeare Company had no formal panel until legal head Marina Zain joined to bring some logic to bear on the ‘artistic’ legal set-up

Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or organise an annual retainer on a fixed fee… You get the gist.

For theatre buffs the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is Mecca. But head of legal Marina Zain is just as likely to get excited about process mapping and a new intranet as the latest production of Measure for Measure. The stage was not her calling. In fact, she sympathises with schoolchildren who feel Shakespeare is dead to them and recently failed to recognise David Tennant.

“He was sitting right there and my friend said ‘look who it is’, but I just kept saying ‘where is he, I can’t see him’ because he had a ponytail for Richard II.”


But Zain, who is in the process of reorganising the quirky and chaotic organisation into a thing of business beauty, has made the company her home.

All the world’s a stage…

Zain was born in Kuala Lumpur, where her family still lives, and was planning on studying economics until she won a law scholarship to the University of Bristol. 

“I fell into law by accident,” she says. “I wanted to do economics, but got offered a scholarship to do law, so I thought ‘how hard can it be – I like to read’,” she laughs. “So no big design. I’ve never had a huge plan for my career. Some people think ‘I’ll go to a law firm and in seven years I’ll be a partner’. That hasn’t been my way.”

After starting her career at legacy Deloitte Haskins & Sells she moved on to Accenture and then IBM in 2000. That job meant a lot of travelling, but not as much as her next role for British American Tobacco (BAT) where, she says, “I spent 85 per cent of my time on the road.”

The globetrotting came to an end when she settled in the UK with her husband, who she met at BAT.

It was in 2013 that she was contacted to apply for a short-term role at the RSC, which quickly became a long-term one when Zain fell in love with the theatre.

Playing the part

“I had my reservations at first,” she says. “I’d never worked in entertainment but I wasn’t intimidated. Maybe naively, I went in thinking ‘it’s just another organisation. It will have its quirks and I’m sure there will be the arty element’. But that’s no different from going into IBM and thinking there’ll be a bunch of tech people.”

Zain is more likely to speak in systems than sonnets.

The problem-solving lawyer says: “The challenges are no different from any other commercial organisation. The RSC produces a product and the plays are that product.”

Music to a Shakespeare lover’s ears? Maybe not, but the approach has enabled her to crack the riddle of a hefty legal need with a not-so-hefty budget. 

“I have an affinity for organising things and like to be able to structure something,” she says. “When I go into a job I usually see the structure and the way I can fill the gaps.”


That has meant a form of automation for the bulk of the contracting work passing across Zain’s desk. She has kick-started a three-year plan focused on pioneering a new intranet within the company.

“I want to be able to provide a self-service portal so it’s the first place people go for templates information,” she reveals. “It’s a small team – just me and a legal project co-ordinator – so it’s necessary to automate as much as possible.”

She has worked with IT to create a web page with templates, guidance, project information and contracts, and is working on a new contract management system.

“There are so many contracts, from cleaning services to fireworks,” she says. “We have about 800 which are scanned but sitting on shared files. We’re planning on storing them virtually.”

But if contracts and terms and conditions sound dry, try doing them dressed as a knight.

“I worked on the new costume hire terms and conditions and that was a great experience,” she says, with a glint in her eye. “We have a huge warehouse space on two floors and it’s fantastic. It’s got racks and racks of costumes – armour, underwear, hats, crowns, saddles… I tried on a Tudor-style outfit.”

Sweet charity

Although Zain tries to do work in-house it is not always possible. Consequently, the RSC often turns to Ashurst, Foot Anstey, Harbottle & Lewis and Wragge & Co for help.

“Ashurst has done a lot, mainly on real estate during the big transformation project [a £112.8m three-phase scheme to overhaul and restore the RSC theatres]. During that we had support from local firms that did work for free.”

She also uses real estate partner Christopher Hunt at Wragges, theatre partner Neil Adleman at Harbottle & Lewis and Foot Anstey employment partner Patrick Howarth.

She sometimes turns to Weil Gotshal & Manges for tax advice when working with US sister organisation RSCA, led by Kimberly Blanchard.

Zain’s relationships with those firms are made more special by the volume of pro bono work the firms take on, a necessity considering her budget was just £70,000 last year.

“Weil do a lot of pro bono for us, mainly for tax-related questions,” she says. ”It’s basically all pro bono and if anything falls outside that they will let us know, but it’s not happened during my time.”

The taming of the panel

Despite the strength of those partnerships, one of Zain’s first moves has been to launch the RSC’s first-ever panel review.

“I’m doing a supply review that will be completed in June,” she says. “At the moment there’s no real list which is why I’m doing it. It’s a big job but I think it will be scaled down. It will be a tender process and I’m looking to have a fairly small, manageable panel.”

So what is she looking for in her legal muses?

“I’d like them to show a real desire to build a partnership with us and that means it’s a two-way street, not just us giving them money,” she insists. “They would need to show they want to give us something in return.”

Zain confirms she will want firms to commit to a percentage of work pro bono and adds that “it’s probably going to be based on a percentage, but I’m not sure how I’m going to put that forward yet”.

The first stage in the process has been to analyse the company’s legal spend, a big job. No doubt if she finds that all’s well, it will end similarly.


Marina Zain, RSC

Position: Head of legal

Reporting to: Finance director Stephen Eames

Employees: 500 (with seasonal variations)

Legal capacity: Two

Main law firms: Ashurst, Foot Anstey, Harbottle & Lewis, Weil Gotshal & Mange