Ben, firstly can you tell us a bit about your career to date?
I started at a regional firm in Nottingham; I then had a very unpleasant six months at a small firm in Bristol before getting my ‘mojo’ back at Hammonds (now Squire Sanders) in Leeds. That led to me moving on to Marks & Spencer, then Homeserve and now Nisa Retail.
Why did you choose to become an in-house lawyer?
While on secondment at Yorkshire Water I had people phoning up to thank me for work I’d done. I remember being genuinely shocked at that, and then realising that working in that sort of environment was definitely for me. Fairly soon after that, I managed to find a role at Marks & Spencer which was a great first move in-house.
What do you think are the core specialisms that a successful in-house lawyer should have?
Leaving aside the technical legal expertise, the ability to relate to colleagues without blinding them with science is clearly key. The ability to give an answer to a question shouldn’t be underestimated – even where the legal position is not clear, you can still venture your opinion on what course of action you believe to be best. You may get it wrong but generally speaking the world doesn’t fall apart if you do. And finally – plain English at all times!
The retail sector has evolved over the past 10 years so what do you think are the main challenges for the market right now?
In retail generally there appears to be a flight to extremes – by which I mean that luxury and discount retail is doing well but if you operate in the middle then it’s a challenge. I think that’s set to continue for some time, particularly given the wider economic challenges. We have a government that claims it is engaged in austerity programmes and yet is spending vast amounts more than it earns. The debt incurred as a result means two things will follow with absolute certainty – inflation and higher taxes. Both of those will inevitably impact on consumer spending.
On the flip side, what do you think are the main opportunities?
In the convenience sector we believe customers are more prepared to shop locally now than ever before. The last few decades have been dominated by the multiples with convenient out of town shopping. However, we’ve seen over the last few years a growing resistance to the bland homogeny that brings. Local resistance to multiples is growing and we believe local stores that support the local community can benefit from this.
How have these affected your own career?
I’ve come to understand that an interest in the wider commercial and economic environment is a pre-requisite to being a successful in-house lawyer. Just doing the day job doesn’t add much value to a business – you need to be thinking constantly about how your knowledge can help to grow it.
How do you stay one step ahead?
In terms of workload, I’m not sure I’m ever one step ahead! Particularly with my inbox I feel like King Cnut – no matter how many emails I deal with and archive, they just keep coming.
Can you see what you do changing in the short to medium term?
Well, I’ve just started my new role at Nisa so hopefully not!
What do you think are the main benefits for an organisation that employs an in-house legal team?
A team focussed on business support, whose overriding aim is to help the business achieve its goals can add tremendous value. It can also reduce risks and reduce costs.
Finally, any words of advice for readers who may be thinking of becoming an in-house lawyer?
Speak to other in-house lawyers, not just at your level but more senior too. I find that the kind of individual drawn to in-house is also the kind of individual who is willing to give advice. So don’t be afraid to approach someone to discuss whether you think it’s for you. And if you’re worried about whether you’ll regret taking the plunge, you can always move back to private practice – and your stint in-house will give your CV a boost.