Edward Smethurst, Chairman of the Commerce & Industry Group North West
Firstly, can you give us an overview of the Commerce & Industry Group (North West) and what your role is in it?
The C&I Group North West represents all in house lawyers in the North West. Our region runs from Carlisle in the North to Stoke in the South and from Liverpool in the West to the Yorkshire border in the East. We have around 1400 in house lawyers as our members and are recognised as being the largest and most vibrant regional group. I took over as Chairman of the North West Group in 1994 and have therefore been Chairman for 17 years. The Group is run by an Executive Committee of North West in house lawyers. We all give our time free of charge and charge our members no membership fee. Because we are successful and our events are well attended, we find that there are a variety of external service providers who are anxious to sponsor events for our members. Our key aim is to deliver free of charge and heavily subsidised quality events to our members, without our members facing any hard sell marketing from sponsors. Our main role, therefore is to carefully select partners and work with them to deliver events that add real value to the in house legal community.
What are the main benefits for in-house lawyers who may want to get involved in the Group?
We run a variety of events, typically running three or four half day CPD courses, which are free of charge and also one or two pure social events, which again are free of charge. We also run an annual dinner and sometimes full day conferences, the cost of which is very heavily subsidised. As well as the obvious benefit of your CPD requirements being satisfied at little or no cost, networking is a very major benefit for members. Many in house lawyers co-operate with each other as they are rarely in competition with each other. There is a great spirit of co-operation and helping each other along. We often make contacts and refer to each other when we need a recommendation for an expert or a barrister or an external firm. The Group is very sociable and is also good fun.
The annual North West awards took place last week. Why do you think they’re so important?
It is an opportunity to recognise the excellence of the in house legal community in the North West. The standard of the nominations was so high that it really brings home how good the in house sector in the North West really is. We should recognise and reward the talent in the North West and be justifiably proud of the status of the In House legal community in the North West and those who work within the North West in house sector.
Away from the Group, what are your predictions for the in-house market over the next couple of years? Do you think any new trends will emerge?
Yes I do. In my earlier career, I worked extensively in the USA where I saw the increased prominence and seniority of general counsel/legal director. I became an in house lawyer in 1993 and over that period of time the overall size of the in house legal community has increased by around 300% or more. Although there will be cyclical peaks and troughs, I believe that the underlying trend will be for the in house legal community to grow and for the seniority and status of in house lawyers to increase. It may be some time before the general counsel of a company always sits at the right hand of the CEO of a major corporation (as is often the case in the USA) but I do feel that we are heading in that direction.
How important do you think networking and on-going training is to in-house lawyers?
I believe that it is enormously important. There are very few things that in house lawyers miss from their days in private practice, but one is perhaps the interaction with other lawyers, which might be infrequent if, for example, you work in a sole in house role or a small department. Networking is, in many ways, one of our most important qualities. When you move in house, your relationship with private practice also changes as you become their customer. By networking with fellow in house lawyers, you are much more likely to get a completely impartial view. Fellow in house lawyers can also deliver good practical advice as to the internal challenges that you are likely to face. I know that my career has benefitted enormously from the guidance given to me by fellow in house lawyers. In relation to training, there are few good quality specific courses aimed at in house lawyers. Our courses are developed by in house lawyers for in house lawyers and many are completely free of charge. The courses are also based in the North West. It is therefore an opportunity to not only satisfy your CPD requirements but also network with colleagues from your own region.
Tell us a bit about your career history?
I qualified as a solicitor in Manchester City Centre with Halliwell Landau as it then was but thankfully left in 1993! I then went to work for British Nuclear, working with Alvin Shuttleworth. The department was a fantastic place to work as a young in house lawyer with great quality work and a superb team of in house lawyers. My work involved me working extensively in the USA, South Africa, Japan, the Caribbean and Central America. I obtained experience that I frankly would never have got anywhere near had I remained in private practice. I still look back at those days with great fondness and recognise that in many ways, young lawyers can get a better training, which prepares them better for the future careers if they join the right in house department. In year 2000, I joined the board of Ultraframe Plc, which was then a FTSE 250 Plc. Ultraframe was then a highly profitable building materials company, which had a plethora of complex legal issues arising from its development of intellectual property. Again, this was great experience and gave me experience of working in a publicly listed, high value company and in particular of managing external legal resource across several different jurisdictions. In 2006, Ultraframe was taken over by Brian Kennedy and the Latium Group. The Latium Group had never before had an in house legal function and was not planning to develop one. A decision was, however, taken to retain me as Legal Director, even though the rest of the Board were not retained. I stayed at Latium for 4 years and my roles included being a director of Sale Sharks Rugby Club (a Premier League Rugby Union club) and sitting on the boards of companies as diverse as private jet companies and large manufacturing companies. Again, this part of my career was highly varied and interesting and helped me further develop my entrepreneurial skills. In 2010, I helped set up and became the Chairman and Legal Director of two separate businesses, which I remain with to the present day. The first is Prosperity International Sports Management Limited, which provides full management services to professional sports people. We manage a number of successful football clients but also work with other sports and by way of example we look after 10 Olympic athlete podium prospects for London 2012. Our aim is to provide entrepreneurial advice, with integrity and honesty and our in house legal function is at the centre of that process, with two in house lawyers and a trainee lawyer. Our second business is Palladium Associates Plc, which provides private investigation and risk management services to major Plc’s. Throughout my in house career, I was responsible for corporate governance and often dealt with the investigation of major frauds and debt recovery issues. Palladium acts for major UK banks and has offices in London and Frankfurt. Again, the in house legal function is important to ensure that we get the right results but in a completely legal manner.
Can you give young and upcoming lawyers any tips?
Yes, go in house!
What do you get up to outside of your legal work?
I love sport, both watching and playing. Current affairs is also a passion. I also enjoy travel enormously, particularly when it’s outside of my work.
Finally, any words of wisdom for readers of The Brief who might be thinking of a career in-house?
A career in house can be extremely fulfilling and rewarding. Those who particularly enjoy the in house sector and perhaps particularly succeed in the sector are those with a wider commercial perspective. In house roles can give you the opportunity to spread your wings and deliver value in the widest sense.