Susan Dennehy – head of legal at Swinton Insurance – discusses her career, how she keeps her team motivated & how the business has reacted after being fined for mis-selling

What does your current role at Swinton involve?
I am head of legal and also manage the internal audit function which is outsourced. The legal team is made up of a legal administrator, trainee solicitor, solicitor and assistant company secretary. I look after all the business’ legal needs which range from developing strategy to drafting our own bespoke outsourcing agreements. There is a large Risk & Compliance Department who undertake all the Financial Conduct Authority regulatory work.

What made you initially choose to pursue a career in law?
I had been working in the airline industry for some years (lastly as cabin crew for Emirates) and decided my next job needed to be one where: (i) I didn’t have to stand all day at 30,000 feet; (iii) aging on the job was acceptable; and (ii) I didn’t have to smile non-stop !! Law was the only career choice that appeared to provide all these opportunities.

Can you tell us a bit about your own career to date?
My initial degree was in History of Art, but when I finished university jobs in this area were few and far between, so I got a summer job at Manchester Airport, checking in passengers for flights and before I knew it, I was flying as cabin crew and had spent five years living in Dubai. On a very long night flight I decided it was time to get a “proper job” with prospects, so I returned to studying (whilst working full time), completed the common professional examination and legal practice course.

Upon qualifying, I worked at Bermans (commercial) and then DLA (corporate) in Liverpool. To celebrate the millennium I moved in-house to Great Universal Stores in Manchester and was there for six years until I was made redundant due to the sale and subsequent relocation of the business to Shop Direct, Speke. This was followed by one year at outsourcing specialist Vertex Data Sciences Limited and I joined Swinton Insurance in late 2007.

Why did you decide to move in-house?
I am not a geeky academic lawyer, but I do enjoy trying to take the mystery out of the law and making it easier to understand so it can be applied to problem solving in business. Plus, I had always loved the employee perks associated with working in the airline industry and was disappointed when I discovered that private practice law firms had so few. So, I decided my skills and personality may be better suited to the hustle and bustle of in-house lawyering. I worked at GUS (Shop Direct) for six years and thoroughly enjoyed it and yes - the employee benefits were much better.

The unpredictable nature and volume of the work that comes across my desk every day - from every level of the business and from every corner of the business - makes its thoroughly enjoyable. I can’t envisage that in private practice I would have the same amount of interaction that I get from all employees throughout the business on a daily basis. It is never dull.

How did you find the transition?
Easier than I had imagined. At DLA I always had a safety net of the partners and a fantastic back office support so you do feel more exposed in-house when you start. However, the relationships you build with your clients working in-house - and with external law firms - is very rewarding and gives you the confidence to flourish. In private practice at junior level it often felt I was working to fund the equity partners pension plan whereas in-house it feels more like we are all working together to make the business a success.

The last eight years have been tough for the financial sector so how have you kept your team motivated & engaged?
The team has only been in place for fourteen months so it hasn’t been too hard keeping them motivated! I firmly believe that you only enjoy your work when you are good at it and that involves keeping all your skills up to date. This means I am very supportive of them when it comes to training and I try to get them involved in all the projects and types of work so they are fully immersed in the business and developing themselves professionally and personally. It must be working as all the team have 100% attendance rate and I get lots of positive feedback from their internal clients.

With the increase in UK and EU legislation generally, the reality is that business is tougher for everyone nowadays, but if you can survive working in the financial services sector then you know you can work anywhere.

How has the business changed over the past eight years, especially since Swinton was fined over £7m in 2013 for mis-selling?
Swinton has dramatically changed its working culture and is aiming to be an employer of choice in the FS sector. It is exciting to be involved in bringing about this change which helps to raise the standard for all employees and our customers. The biggest change had been moving employee incentives focus away from selling to customer service, which together with increasing the basic wage and number of holidays has made the change easier to embed.

The culture does flow from the top and the changes can be seen here on a regular basis. In the last eight years the business has dramatically increased the size of its Risk and Compliance Department and the leadership team here supports and encourages compliance in every area of the business. It is refreshing to see the business appreciate the support and advice it obtains from its professional in-house advisors.

What do you think is in-store for the financial/ insurance sectors in the UK in 2016?
1. Greater scrutiny from the Competition Markets Authority into insurance and the use of big
data; and
2. As the FCA has to justify its own existence and effectiveness and the strategy of the FCA appears to have shifted from solely looking at customer detriment to financial sustainability of firms/ banks as the pressure from regulatory compliance increases.

Finally, any tips/ advice for readers who may be thinking of moving from private practice into in-house?
Stop thinking about it and do it. It can be daunting, especially if you move into a sole advisor role and if that is what’s stopping you, then move in-house into an existing team to help you with the transition.

If you utilise a legal panel of external law firms you will receive a wide range of advice from professionals (who are experts in their fields) that you might not ever had access to previously and this exposure has been invaluable in my career in-house.