The Portfolio Lawyer – Thomas Keevil chats to BCKR
We were delighted to welcome Tom Keevil to our latest BCKR Breakfast. An experienced lawyer, trustee and non executive director, he was full of useful insights and advice. Here is a summary of what he had to say.
Tom was a partner at Simmons & Simmons, before going in-house as GC for three FTSE 100 companies -Gallagher, United Utilities and Barratt. He is now Chairman of City West Properties (Westminster City Council’s public/private housing management operation, with 21,000 properties and he sits on the board of the Land Trust).
Tom stressed there is a whole panoply of options for NED and trustee roles – public, private, not for profit, regulators, charities, private equity etc. But their common factor is the need for solvency and value for money spent. For all categories of board, competition for places fierce. To highlight the real nature of this competition:
• City West was recently recruiting for two unpaid board members. They received 150 applicantions, mostly of pretty credible quality.
• When the Land Trust was recruiting recently for a trustee (also unpaid), 150 people downloaded the ad and again over 50 applications were received.
Do organisations need a lawyer in the board? The answer is ‘no’! But the skill set they can bring is valuable. You won’t be appointed for legal advice, so reinvent yourself and view your own experience as a future board member, not as an ex-lawyer!
Boards have been getting smaller in size in recent years, which doesn’t facilitate greater diversity of experience. Most boards want some NEDs with CEO and CFO experience….’to keep management honest and realistic’ as well as some qualified accountants, so that leaves limited room for other types of experience.
Where is broad legal experience particularly relevant? One area is membership of the Remco. This is now a high profile role, and Remco chairs increasingly often need to meet and explain the issues to analysts and shareholders. Lawyers’ skills are well suited, i.e. dispassionate and not afraid to confront difficult issues.
How does a Lawyer get onto a search longlist?
You need, of course, to meet the right headhunters and you should seek network contacts who may be able to recommend you. You then have to overcome some prejudices and to demonstrate the following qualities:
• tact – ability to deliver outside the boardroom as well as inside
• attention to detail and
• sector knowledge (again, use your network)
You should ideally demonstrate that you are:
• a business person first and foremost, but with legal training
• able to act as a mentor, a conscience, for the board and
• able to act as an ambassador – using your network to widen contacts, open doors for the business
Tom concedes that, post law, there’s been a lot of luck in his career. He spent 16 years as a litigator, but as soon as he went in house, his legal skills turned to general management skills, despite the GC job title. He learned to apply his legal skills in a business context, not as an external advisor. The culture at Barratt – in the construction business, quickly taught him how to deal effectively with very practical people and issues!
He is on the SRA board, – he had a massive row with them that was reported right up to the top of the SRA which in turn lead to a call to discuss going on the SRA Board! He also serves on the board of FMI, an American insurance company – he loves it, as it is transparent and the people are good. This makes a real difference.
Over the years, Tom has learnt that:
• you should only apply for things you’ll enjoy.
• don’t take rejection personally.
• the Government appointment processes are very long and extended
• always double the time commitment for any role, compared to the job description – understand the commitment when you take things on.
Tom is cynical about spending your money on joining a pure networking group – they tend just to link you with other people at the same stage. Use the network you already have, go for one to one situations – avoid networking events that involve only people who are all looking for the same thing, or a drinks party of 100 lawyers! Cups of coffee with a handful of senior individual contacts are a much better way. Keep in touch with who you have known and other former professional advisers you have met. If you can get access, however, membership of the Deloitte Academy is very worthwhile (though you generally need to have a listed role to join).
These are very different and can be frustrating. You can find up to 20 people around the table – lobbyists, speech makers, journalists etc., all with their own agendas. That makes it all very difficult to get to the key issues and for you to make a difference.
• you need to invest lots of time to do any NED or Trustee role properly, to be part of it, to drive it, rather than just being a ‘governance tick’
• the role of chair, if you can get one, is far more enjoyable than the mainstream NED role
• lawyers bring an ability to negotiate with difficult people, quietly behind the scenes -use it!
• don’t be afraid of asking the stupid question.
• you learn a great deal by being on board committees, that’s where a lot of key stuff is decided.
• charities boards can be difficult, hard to feel involved as they tend to be large, sometimes don’t meet that often and some have limited opportunities to get involved or meet outside of the board meetings.