Name: Peter Dickinson
Position: General counsel
Trained at: Clifford Chance
In Hot 100 for: Fighting fires at Mitie, stepping up to become acting CEO in unforeseen circumstances. Read his full Hot 100 profile.
What’s your most vivid memory from being a trainee?
A real estate client, who I had never met, invited me to lunch in the mistaken belief that I was a partner. His mistake became apparent as soon as we met, but he was very gracious and we had a very “good” lunch at a smart restaurant.
As we parted, I foolishly asked for instructions on a lease negotiation I was working on for him. The landlord was refusing to grant our client a short extension to a lease which had just expired (demanding instead that they extend for many years). My client told me to return to the office, call the landlord’s lawyers and advise them “firmly” that if they didn’t agree to our terms, the client would vacate the building within two weeks.
Emboldened, I did just that. As I put the phone down, my supervising partner, having overheard the call, asked the obvious question “Do you have written instructions to do that?” Hesitantly, I admitted that I did not. A few minutes later the landlord’s lawyers called back, accepting the surrender! Wisely, my client had gone straight home, so I could not break the news to him.
After a sleepless night, I finally spoke to him the next day. It was clear he had only a vague recollection of our conversation the previous day. However, he remained calm and we went about finding alternative accommodation very quickly – and I survived to live another day. An object lesson…
Who has been the most influential person in your career? Why, and how have they helped you?
I began my career at Clifford Turner, shortly before it merged with Coward Chance, to become Clifford Chance. I was “articled” to David Tate, one of the senior partners, who specialised in oil and gas law.
David’s influence, during my formative years, was significant. He was very much his own person and encouraged those who worked with him to be themselves, to always pursue excellence, to never be afraid to seek advice from others and to always respect the other side (however much one might disagree with their position (!)). He also believed in a no-fault culture (i.e. provided you had done your best, if matters went wrong, you still deserved his unqualified support). This approach is something I strive to replicate with my own team.
What was the best career decision you ever made, and why?
After Clifford Chance and a brief period at Lovells, in 1994 I joined Mercury (the UK telecoms operator, which was part of Cable & Wireless), as an M&A lawyer. Until that point, the UK telecoms market had operated as a duopoly (BT and Mercury). However, market liberalisation meant that suddenly there was a massive influx of new entrants and a telecommunications boom.
When I joined Mayer Brown (in its former guise of Rowe and Maw), I was able to help establish Mayer Brown’s TMT practice by leveraging my telecoms industry experience, but more importantly by following the diaspora of former Mercy Communication’s colleagues as they joined the new entrants, who then became clients.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to get to where you are/do the job you do?
Carpe Diem! Embrace change: see it as an opportunity and not a threat. I became General Counsel at Mitie only a year ago – having been a partner at Mayer Brown for more than 20 years. I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Mayer Brown, where I had led the corporate practice in the UK for more than a decade, before co-leading Mayer Brown’s global sourcing practice. However, I was conscious that I had been operating within my comfort zone for many years and kept wondering how I might put the skills I had developed over many years to the test, in a different environment and context. Therefore, when I was approached by Phil Bentley, Mitie’s new CEO, asking if I would join him and his team on a journey to transform Mitie, I did not hesitate – and two weeks later began at Mitie.
I can say with certainty, my new role regularly takes me out of my comfort zone!
What work or career-related project or activity would you really like to do, but don’t have time for?
At Mitie, we employ some 56,000 employees, many of whom are carry out manual work on the National Minimum Wage, London Living Wage or equivalent. Through the Mitie Foundation (a charitable trust), we strive to support people with barriers to employment and improve social mobility. We do this through harnessing the skills and expertise of our workforce, our clients and our supply chain. There are three areas of focus: Employability (helping people to enter or re-enter the world of work); Education (engaging with education establishments to inspire young people into the world or work); and Enterprise (encouraging and supporting community collaboration and entrepreneurial spirit). The legal profession remains inaccessible to a large portion of society.
As a profession, we need to do so much more to improve social mobility (whether through the use of apprenticeship programmes, mentoring or otherwise) and, in due course, I would like to involve myself in those efforts.