Kevin Athow

Kevin Athow

Head of Legal & Compliance at BSH UK & Ireland

BCL's In-house Managing Director, Mark Levine interviews Kevin Athow, Head of Legal & Compliance at BSH, UK & Ireland...

In this series, BCL Legal Co-Founder and In-house Managing Director, Mark Levine, finds out a bit more about how lawyers who work in-house have got to where they are, what they do, what they feel are important character traits to have... and what lawyers considering a move in-house should think about!

What / who made you consider law as a career?
Tricky question – and actually it’s not a straightforward answer…

I didn’t really have a clue about a career whilst at secondary school, so I spent much of my formative years following music bands and occasionally roadie-ing for them, until I was aged about 23-24 when I “settled down” to a full-time job with the civilian side of the MOD.  Eventually I landed a full time job at, what was then, GEC Plessey Telecomms (GPT) during which time I also acted as a trade union rep.  Eventually the division of GPT I worked for was acquired by Siemens Communications, who sponsored me to study the MBA with the Open University.  One of the MBA modules at the time was “Employment Law for Managers” – which to me was an eye-opener and highly likely was the reason I’m a lawyer today.

Employment law I found fascinating (even just the small snapshot from the OU course)– constantly changing, without necessarily with “right” or “wrong” answers but multiple ways of analysing situations, facts and people to come up “an answer” in order to help people.

I decided to drop the OU course, and in 1994 I self-funded a part-time law degree at Nottingham Trent University for 4 years, living in Nottingham and commuting daily to Luton to work as a Business Analyst in the IT department, then on to Nottingham Trent Uni every Tuesday and Thursday evening to study.  In reality I did it out of interest at the time with no real intention of a career in law.  In the third year I was looking at the options for after year 4, and, fortuitously, I was called for service in the local Crown Court.  As a juror I was able to watch Barristers at work, and one defence Barrister really stood out.  Looking back at it I think he may have been in his 2nd 6 – and he (to me) seemed to be making a right mess of things.

I remember thinking at the time “What’s he doing?  Even I could do a better job”.  I think that’s what swung it – I resigned from Siemens Communications in 1998 after finishing the degree to study (what was then) the Bar Vocational Course full time at Nottingham Law School.  The rest is pretty much history.

There was manager at Siemens Communications, a guy called Andy Shenton who was the Commercial Director at the time, that unofficially mentored and supported me throughout the 5 years and again when I re-joined Siemens as a qualified Barrister ion 1999 - I honestly don’t think I’d be here without the support etc. he gave me back then.

What do you enjoy most about working as an in-house lawyer?

The sheer breadth (and volume) of work…  No two days are ever the same – there are obviously peaks and troughs in terms of work-load, and there are always the “annoying” things that have to be done and can be repetitive as with any job, but there’s always something new that arises.  It could be an area of law that you’re unfamiliar with so you need to do a lot of research/study so you’re competent enough to give sound, business-like advice and support to the business, or a new “deal” to be negotiated, which means you need to get involved with the business to work out how it is structured/could be structured.

Also, working as an in-house lawyer isn’t just about “the law” (admittedly there’s a fair chunk of legal work) - it’s about people, relationships, sometimes politics, some accountancy (especially when you get to more senior positions), and businesses and how they operate/function at all levels.
What attracted you to work for your current company?

I joined BSH in 2010 as the sole UK lawyer (worldwide at that time I think there were probably no more than 12 lawyers looking after a €10 billion group of companies).  BSH-UK has been trading since 1967 and up to 2010 the legal work had either been done by the CFO or external lawyers or with the support of the international legal team.  It was pretty clear during the interview stage that there was a lot of work that needed doing – supporting the business, changing the business’ perception that “legal is a black hole that problems/contracts go in to and eventually something comes out”, and establishing a legal and compliance framework that helps to educate and protect the company and its employees.  What really swung it though was the final interview with, the then, CEO and CFO.

Their attitude was very entrepreneurial, but they had the sort of characteristics that garnered respect, even at the interview stage.  I’m still in touch (via Twitter) with them even though they retired 8-9 years ago.  In fact I’ve been lucky enough at Siemens and BSH to have had some great CEO’s and CFO’s over the years.
What are the main deliverables of your role?

Legal and compliance support to the business.  It not just a case of being able to give legal advice, but to be able to give legal and compliance support – translating areas of law or concepts that are alien to most people (i.e. non-lawyers) into meaningful language that they can understand.  There’s no point in providing “legal advice” if it isn’t understood by the people asking for help – you need to be able to support them by translating the legal concepts from “legal-speak” to “business speak” so that they can make an informed choice on the next steps etc. 

What do you feel are the most important character traits of an in-house lawyer?
Ultimately, working in-house, an in-house lawyer is a problem solver – coming up with solutions and ideas that the business can work with.

People at all levels of the business come to in-house lawyers for answers to their questions.  People frequently ask the questions that they think they have to ask or have it in their minds that something can only be done one way, so another part of the job is to understand the people and the “deal” and what they’re actually trying to achieve, the in-house lawyer has to try and understand their aims and support them in helping them to achieve those aims.

Another facet of an in-house lawyer that is sometimes overlooked by the lawyer (and sometimes the business) is the position of trust that the lawyer is in.  People have be able to come to the lawyer expecting a degree of openness and confidentiality, and to some extent impartiality.  It’s not for the in-house lawyer to judge, but it is part of the in-house lawyer’s job to support/help/guide as necessary.   

Sometimes people come to an in-house lawyer not because they have a problem to be solved or need support/guidance but they just need someone that they can just talk and discuss things with – not necessarily about legal or compliance topics but because they need help – it could be work related or it could be personal, but part of being an in-house lawyer is having the ability to listen when it’s needed and speak only when it’s needed. 

When / if you look for new team members – what is most important to you and why? Ability or Character?

When I look for a new team member I tend to look at the person themselves, not their ability or qualifications.  I assume that as they’re qualified as an iLEX, Solicitor, or Barrister they already possess the ability to do the job.

Similarly I don’t look at where they went to school/University/Law School, or whether they’ve been solely in Private Practice nor whether they’ve only ever worked in-house, or what their background is.
What I tend to look for is:
  • what are they like as a person?;
  • how will they “fit” with the team they could be joining?;
  • how will the existing team members “fit” with them?;
  • how will they fit in with the general organisation?;
  • what have they done in their life to get where they are now?;
  • if they joined what can I do as the team leader/manager do to help and support them whilst they’re in the job?;
  •  what are they looking for from the job?.

To me, the team member has to be personable, be approachable, have the ability to stick to their guns when needed, to try things and have the ability to admit it if things go wrong, and still have "common sense”.

What would you say to any lawyer considering a move in-house?

Do it.  There a lot of changes on the horizon in terms of the way in-house lawyers work and inter-operate with and relate to other areas of business, especially with the introduction of legal technology and artificial intelligence, but the core elements that made you become a lawyer in the first place, presumably the ability to help/guide/support people, is still there and will always be there.

It’s a fantastic career – and one that I’ll never regret in pursuing.