In this latest 60-second interview, OakNorth Bank senior director for legal and transaction management Fabien Bonavia talks to The Lawyer about the importance of emotional intelligence and a dexterous commercial and legal mindset when dealing with ” the mother of all crises”, COVID-19.

What are the new skills that emerged from the COVID-19 crisis that will help lawyers going forward?

I believe that in my lifetime at least, the COVID-19 crisis will go down as the mother of all crises. Despite its devastating impact, there are many learnings for lawyers not least to observe this impact first-hand and grab the opportunity to create real change.

Fabien Bonavia
Fabien Bonavia

The impact of COVID-19 on OakNorth Bank’s loan book has been palpable. For instance, we have had clients whose revenue has gone from admirable to near-zero, overnight. This has made us think long and hard about our robust credit monitoring capabilities, but also given us a chance to come up with innovative ways to support businesses through this dark period so they can flourish once again.

Beyond our existing borrowers, we’ve managed to find new businesses and strong management teams to lend to during this time. As a lawyer, this creates a unique opportunity for us to be entrepreneurial and creative with our solutions.

Not only does this involve a dexterous commercial and legal mindset, it also makes us realise that behind the documents, there are real people who are in need of a business lifeline. That said, the emotional intelligence can never be removed from the job. Factoring in the importance of our client’s ambitions, fears and needs is critical in finding the right solutions.

How can in-house teams truly add value to the organisation rather than just being an in-house version of their external counsel?

The transition from private practice to in-house can be challenging. At some point, you ask yourself: “What do I actually do?”. There is a temptation for some in-house teams to simply manage and process the output from their external legal suppliers.

At OakNorth Bank we decided that this alone would not be our mission statement. Our primary role is to execute transactions and that involves an understanding of the business’ commercial and credit objectives. By being involved in the early stages of the deal, through to execution and quite often through the life of the loan until repayment, we are responsible (and accountable!) for the relationship between the bank and the client throughout the journey.

The in-house teams’ “value-add” is more to do with sustaining a relationship with all of the bank’s teams like Origination, Credit, Operations, Treasury, Onboarding and Risk. We are constantly challenged to identify ways to “zero-base” inefficiencies in the loan-cycle and propose solutions for how to make banking less clunky and time consuming.

At OakNorth Bank, we are committed to building a bank founded on these principles.

Do legal teams still need new people who can demonstrate real experience in a particular area, or are lawyers better off as generalists?

Most lawyers who are now in-house have spent some time working at a private practice, often carrying with them some level of specialism. The level of granular thinking and training during private practice cannot be forgone.

The transition to a functioning in-house legal team involves less of a generalist expertise and more of a generalist way of thinking. We ask the right questions to get to the issues that matter most. For instance, even though a corporate structure may work legally, it may be less attractive from a credit or cost perspective. Balancing those considerations with a birds’ eye view is part of the value proposition we are duty-bound to offer.

There is no type of deal, structure or sector that we would not consider at OakNorth Bank. During my tenure, I have been propelled into areas that were previously alien to me. Relying on the expertise and resources of external lawyers has been vital to making sense of that. However, the transaction execution team is tasked with thinking innovatively along a much broader spectrum and with the shifting needs of our SME clients especially in such a challenging environment, that approach has served us well.

Who has been the biggest influence in your career?

A very demanding yet, brilliant partner at one of my former private practice job’s mantra was “You’ve got to get the law right!”.

Lawyers are right to develop new and innovative skills to remain relevant in the changing workplace, but the fundamental legal principles that underpin the profession are fairly static (in this country at least!). The mastery of those principles is an absolute must throughout one’s career.