The outsider moves Inn

WITH a gleaming collar and matching nail varnish, Hilary Mundella cuts a bright and confident figure.

“They say the sun shines on the righteous,” she beams, when caught by a ray of sunlight streaming through the window of the Berners Hotel, where we met for coffee.

Yet in the conservative Inns of Court, will such a brightly coloured character be seen as darkening the tastefully decorated door of a barristers chambers?

Today, Mundella becomes the new chief executive of Hardwicke Building, the largest set of chambers in London.

Few envy her first real foray into the legal profession.

The post has been vacant for nine months during which time at least four people were offered and rejected the job.

One practice manager, asked by a head-hunter if she might be interested, responded that she “wouldn't touch it with a barge pole”, while another described the set as an “unwieldy beast”.

Tony Wells, the previous incumbent, left amid rumours of irreconcilable differences with the clerking team, and there is a feeling that problems persist.

“The set has few silks, and practises the sort of general common law work that will go. There has been quite a lot of in-fighting and Tony Wells was very keen to get out,” says one practice manager.

Mundella is single-mindedly confident that the job is right for her. She did not even ask why the job was rejected by so many.

Mundella began her career on a two-year NHS fast-track programme and quickly established herself in general management. After seven years she became the administrator for all hospitals in Scotland south of the river Clyde. She was one of the first NHS managers to negotiate with high street retailers to open shops in hospital foyers.

Mundella believes her subsequent experience as a general manager for BUPA, where she was responsible for dealing with independent specialist consultants, provided excellent preparation for her new role.

This thinking might spell doom for some of those at Hardwicke, which covers a broad range of practice areas, some of which are threat ened with post-Woolf reduced profitability.

However, Mundella has a different take on the pros and cons of going down the specialist route. She queries whether a set offering selective specialisms is really what the client wants.

“Could there be a great opportunity for a general set in the future?” she asks.

Again she draws the analogy with the medical profession: “You need a general surgeon to diagnose the overall problem, and they are becoming fewer in both professions.

“The overall view is that there has to be an optimum size and I suspect we're not far off that. The way forward is in terms of how to position the set. It is one thing to be the largest, but we want to be best.”

Mundella, having exha-usted the health service, has been keen to break into the legal profession for over two years. She has spent that time getting to grips with the profession by meeting solicitors, practice managers and “hassling” the Lord Chancellor's Department.

She is even getting to grips with the Woolf reforms: “I wouldn't say I've read it cover to cover, but I have digested the summary,” she says.

Mundella's task now is to lead the business strategy for the chambers, concentrating on development and marketing.

Despite her confidence, a question mark remains over the extent of influence she will be able to exert. Peter Clarke is already in place as the set's business manager, a three-year business plan is part way through and the management committee spent last weekend formulating the chambers' response to the Woolf reforms.

But Mundella remains extremely confident that she can make a difference.

“I'm an optimist by nature. When I look back at my career I've achieved a lot, and when I set out to achieve something I do so,” she says.

But then Mundella is driven by success. This attitude has certainly helped her into what is widely rumoured to be the £100,000-a-year post. She believes she is a good communicator, operating an open door policy and one of the reasons for her appointment is her ability to manage people.

However, it is uncertain how her corporate ideas for team-building will be received in chambers. Previous jobs have seen her boosting staff morale by taking a stint at the switchboard, or donning a boiler suit to work as a porter.

Mundella cites a five and a half day leadership course run by ex-SAS officers that she attended. The course required her to overcome her fear of diving and she plans similar confidence- and team-building exercises for her staff and perhaps even for the barristers.

At 47, Mundella has over 20 years of experience in the health sector and her energy is undeniable. Even at leisure she is active, whether it be renovating 15th century properties, or classic cars (when she married her husband they had seven MGs between them), or chairing her local village hall committees.

Just how will the Inns, which have a habit of chewing up and spitting out enthusiastic outsiders, respond?

Mundella claims to know what she is letting herself in for: “I'd done my due diligence and so was aware of the environment I was going into.

“I'm a swimmer not a sinker,” she says emphatically.