The Portfolio Lawyer:Amanda Burton former COO Clifford Chance
Last week we were delighted to welcome Amanda Burton, former global COO of Clifford Chance to BCKR to discuss the role of The Portfolio Lawyer.
Amanda’s legal career has very successfully combined law, management and board roles. After qualifying as a solicitor in 1982 at Slaughter and May, Amanda moved into industry. She became an executive director of Meyer International at the age of 38, leading their Timber division while continuing her role as their Legal and Corporate Services Director. She took on her first non-executive role in 1998. In 2000, following Meyer’s takeover by Saint-Gobain, she joined Clifford Chance as London COO and then became Global COO.
Retiring from law in 2014, Amanda is now a non-executive director of Skipton Building Society, HSS Hire Group, Monitise and Countryside Properties and chairs Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.
Here is a summary of what she told us :-
Amanda never had a career plan. After completing her training contract at Slaughter and May, she decided early on in her legal career that she didn’t aspire to be a law firm partner, but wanted to be closer to business. She moved in-house at Tiphook where she very quickly had to become ‘Jack of all trades’, involved in acquisitions and financing. She learnt a huge amount. It was very different being in organisation where you don’t have the infrastructure of a law firm around you.
From there she joined Ratners Group (which at the time she joined was doing well). Within her first 3 weeks there Amanda was put in charge of a large US acquisition but then a few months later Gerald Ratner made ‘the speech’ which was to rapidly impact the success of the company. Amanda became the official press spokesperson during these turbulent times, which was extremely challenging. She was given half a day’s media training in total. Despite witnessing a pack of cards collapse in front of her eyes Ratners still exists, rebranded as Signet, and the acquisition Amanda facilitated in her first few weeks has stood the company in very good stead.
After 2 years Amanda left to go to Meyer International which underwent an emergency rights issue and a very interesting change of Chief Exec. Amanda had the role of GC but wanted more, so they developed the role of the Chairman of the Timber Division for her, putting her on the Executive Board. This gave her direct management experience. However, after a hostile take over by a French company Amanda left, at which point she decided to take some time out to relax and review.
She felt then that her interests lay in management drawing on her Meyer experience. But she was still seen as a lawyer. It was quite hard to move from professional services into management at a different company – a particularly hard sell to headhunters but finally she met a headhunter who was looking for a London CEO of Clifford Chance, a job she took and stayed with for 14 years.
After 14 years, having picked up a couple of NED roles along the way, and not wanting to coast, Amanda left Clifford Chance to concentrate on her portfolio career. She now has quite a diverse range of NED roles:
• Battersea Dog’s Home
• Skipton Building Society
Getting your first role.
Her advice would be:
• Your network is hugely important. You need to let people know that you are looking so they can recommend you when something comes up.
• Some roles are looking for direct legal expertise but others are looking for broader experience. It is about how you write you CV. Amanda’s experience in crisis management and operations has definitely helped her.
• A lawyer might have more chance of getting on a board if an organisation is looking to replace a group of trustees rather than just one.
• Legal skills – particularly in the charity world – are going to be more in demand with increased regulation. Charities should not be overlooked in terms of opportunity. They are often highly commercial and are much easier to obtain and commit to whilst still in full-time practice.
How do you prepare for that first role – once appointed?
• Demand a good induction so you can understand the business and get to grips with the language of that particular business.
• Start to think about where you can add value. Find a way of making a contribution to raise your profile around the table.
NEDs can add a lot of value when things are going wrong. What do you do during the good times?
• Continue to probe into the business
• Site and store visits are absolutely invaluable
• Meet with staff – recognising talent beneath the main board and executive – the next leaders
• Get to know products, new technologies and competitors
You took a career break. Was that frowned upon?
It doesn’t seem to matter in the NED world.
Did you take any courses?
Once you have a role you tend to be inundated with course options. Before you have a role it is harder. Courses do help with networking. You often get a list of attendees in advance which gives you the opportunity to do a bit of research and an idea who might be useful to speak to.
Was becoming a chair a natural evolution or a different job altogether?
It is a different job. It is your job to make sure the right topics are on the agenda, that actions are followed and decisions are made. You are also an ambassador for your organisation.
You will always be perceived as a lawyer – that is why starting a role whilst you are still in your firms is a good building block.