Robyn Sandilands

Robyn Sandilands

Head of Legal at Vets4Pets

BCL's Mark Levine interviews Robyn Sandilands, Head of Legal at Vets4Pets. Robyn tells us about her legal career to date, what she enjoys most about her job... and what advice she would offer to lawyers considering a move in-house.

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?

Being a lawyer was one of my first career choices when I was young (mainly inspired by my Uncle who wasn’t a lawyer but was a magistrate and used to keep me entertained with various stories) but I didn’t follow a legal path after college and went on to do politics and journalism.  I worked in TV and Central Government for a few years before re-training in law.  It was the problem solving, academic element that attracted me back to it.

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

There are lots of things but the main ones would be the enormous variety of work – you never know exactly what is going to cross your desk and I really enjoy that.  There is always some issue or problem that you need to think about!

I also like being part of the business, you get to see strategy evolve and changes take place.  I also have a great team who I really enjoy working with.

What do you feel are the most important character traits of an in-house lawyer?

I think resilience and flexibility and a sense of humour.  Things can be unexpected and whilst this is an up-side of the job it can also be stressful.  You need to be resilient enough to deal with the demands (and know how to respond if people do not agree with you or follow your advice!) you also need an enormous amount of flexibility because priorities can change at short notice and you have to know when to let go of (or hand over) one thing in order to focus on the next.

Also, I’ve said it before but I have learnt to ‘be comfortable being uncomfortable’ - I often have issues where I don’t know the answer but I have learnt where to look for solutions, or I have a team of experts I can ask, or, if something doesn’t make sense I am not worried about calling a meeting with the stakeholders to ask for better instructions!

I also like to have people around who have a good sense of humour.  Life is too short to find everything serious and there are lots of random and funny things that come up.

When / If you look for new team members - what is most important to you and why? Legal expertise or character?

A mixture of both but character is so important.  If we are recruiting for a specialist role (for example IT/ IP) then expertise is more important because there is a clear need for that specialism but if it is a generalist role then it is all about character, willingness to plug skills gaps and having the right attitude.  When I started working here I had been a litigator for a decade and now I find myself doing hardly any litigation so it is possible for anyone to gain the knowledge required if they are willing to and if they have good legal sense.

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

Look carefully about why you want to move in-house and speak to people who are already doing in-house roles.  If you are in a firm that offers secondments put you hand up for that opportunity as you will get to see first-hand what it is like in-house and if it is for you.  Also, look at the size of team and the structure of that team – huge global organisations may have big in-house teams and there is likely to be more hierarchy than somewhere smaller.  There are also more and more places that have a sole Counsel.  You need to look at what is important for you in those different scenarios. 

If after you have done that preliminary work you feel it is for you then go for it!  I consider that any skills gap can be plugged and that any lawyer who had been in practice will have bags of experience that they can call on.

Don’t be afraid to look at everything you have done and see how it can be adapted or useful to the in-house role you are applying for.

What attracted you to work for your current company?

It is a great company to work for.  I head up the Vet Group side of Pets at Home Plc which is made up of 440 Joint and Group Venture veterinary practices.  I did not know much about veterinary or retail when I started here but know lots now! Also I started here because I wanted to move into a more generalist role.  Although I still love litigation and jump at the chance of doing any disputes work I wanted to broaden my skills, manage a team and work with the Executive.  This role has helped me achieve all of that.  

What are the main deliverables of your role?

The deliverables vary so much.  For me it depends on what is going on across the business as well as the time of year but my team are responsible for ensuring that the Joint Venture partnerships work runs smoothly, that the paperwork is completed properly, that the banking and corporate documents are correct and done to time.  I oversee this work and have a great team who are able to pull this together.

Working in partnership with the vets is wonderful and it is so important to the Group that the partnership is a success so the part the legal team play in this process is crucial.