Richard Collins, GC & company secretary – Norcros plc, shares his ‘golden rules’ of working as an in-house lawyer
When I made my career choice at the age of 16 I was sure I wanted to be a lawyer and that has been my chosen career ever since. I studied law at Oxford University and qualified as a solicitor at Cameron McKenna (now CMS) in 1988. I enjoyed six busy years as a corporate/commercial associate in a City law firm, but in 1994 I decided to leave private practice and move in-house. Why did I do that? Fundamentally, because I wanted to belong to - and work for - one organisation rather than act as an external lawyer for an array of clients. I also wanted to be involved in the long-term planning, decision-making and implementation of business, rather than just doing the legal work on a transaction and moving on to the next one.
I have been with Norcros plc since June 2013. Norcros is a global business with its main operations in the UK and South Africa. Our products include Triton showers and VADO showers and taps, plus we manufacture and source ceramic tiles under the Johnson brand. We also manufacture tile adhesive and other building material; in South Africa we have a national chain of shops selling tiles and related products.
My in-house career has primarily involved being the general counsel and company secretary of a UK listed company: Aggregate Industries plc, Blick plc, Tribal Group plc, and now Norcros plc. I have done this sort of role for over 15 years in total. In the three years prior to Norcros I stepped out of the UK-listed company world, and was deputy general counsel and a divisional company secretary at a private-equity owned outsourcing business. I was also - for a year or so - head of compliance and director of risk for its FCA-regulated activities. So, you can see that my career has been nothing if not varied, and I’ve done just about everything you can do on the legal front, from very large corporate/commercial deals (e.g. listed company takeovers; international transactions and large scale outsourcing contracts) to the somewhat non-core for a lawyer with my background - I have even done some advocacy work at employment tribunals and magistrates' courts!
I do think it is important for a general counsel to live up to the “general” in the job title and be able to turn their hand to any legal work. I have experience both working within, or in charge of, a legal team and as sole in-house lawyer. Whatever my exact role, my preference is to “roll my sleeves up” and provide hands-on legal advice, rather than just manage internal and/or external lawyers (important though that is).
If I have any “golden rules” to impart from this long experience, they include:-
• Mind your language - when you are an in-house lawyer your “client” is the business all around you. You are not an outsider advising a third party client. When I went in-house, I noticed a change in my language after about six months, from “you” to “we”.
• Have a view - you are not being paid to sit on the fence, and you should know enough about the business you work for, and its legal issues, to be prepared to express a preferred way forward.
• Remember who earns the money to pay your wages – the people at the “coalface” of your business are the ones who generate the revenue that pays for the in-house legal function. Your priority and focus should be to support them.
• Keep learning - you never know everything there is to know, and your legal career can move in different directions. Also, you must always keep striving to understand your company’s business better – knowledge of your business is the USP of being an in-house lawyer.