In this week’s In-House Scoop with Robin Carvell-Spedding we talk work-life “harmony”, Fatherhood, Matthew McConaughey, Carlsberg & Häagen Dazs!
How did you land your first role in-house?
Having done a client secondment (whilst a Senior Associate at Herbert Smith) and deciding I wanted to explore a move in-house, I started to test the market in late 2012. I knew I wanted to work in the energy industry, but was fairly agnostic as to which specific sector within that. Through a head-hunter I became aware of a great senior legal counsel role with the international legal team at Maersk Oil in Copenhagen. I wasn’t looking for a move abroad (not least as I had just met my now wife!). But the role, work and team, combined with the prospect of living in a wonderful European city, were too good to ignore. I had my annual appraisal at ‘Herbies’ on a Thursday night, flew to Denmark immediately after that, had the 2nd-round interview in Copenhagen the following day – and was sitting at the Carlsberg Bar in Copenhagen Airport that afternoon, waiting for my return flight, when the head-hunter called to tell me of the offer. I think I knew there and then that I would accept!
How did you get to General Counsel at New Age – was it a leap or climb?
A bit of both. I’d been through a contract role (after I returned to London from Denmark in 2015) and spent several years at New Age (the ‘climb’) before being promoted to lead the Legal & Compliance function in mid-2019. I had a good amount of senior-level in-house experience, and certainly dealt with my fair share of gritty issues, but it was the first time I had led a function with the scope to also grow a team. The company was going through a major restructuring and I didn’t necessarily expect the promotion – I got the call from the CEO whilst sipping a beer on holiday in Greece (there seems to be a connection between drinking beer abroad and being offered new jobs!). During the first 6 months of being in post we took on a new CEO and CFO and then Covid hit, all of which contributed to the feeling of it being quite a leap.
What is the most interesting piece of information you have realised you didn’t know you didn’t know about New Age?
The extent and level of risks of all types (commercial, legal, operational etc) that can be associated with an extractive industries company focused on emerging markets (all of our projects are in Africa).
I had worked in-house in the sector for 4 years before joining New Age, including in a variety of jurisdictions. Much of that prior experience has been useful, but I still did not have a proper inkling of the extent and level of risks that a small oil & gas exploration company operating in Africa can face on a day-to-day and ongoing basis.
As GC, is there anything wish you didn’t have so much knowledge about?
Restructuring (both finances and people) and sanctions. New Age has been on a bit of a journey in the past few years, including dealing with factors outside of its control and as a result of the wider geo-political context in which, as an oil and gas company, it operates. I’ve therefore learnt a lot recently about the law and other aspects of these areas, all of which is fascinating and which will no doubt stand me in good stead – but I prefer to focus on more positive and growth-oriented matters!
What piece of advice has stuck with you since your TC days?
You’re not (or shouldn’t be) expected to always know the answer. I think this applies equally to those in private practice and in-house lawyers, including Partners and GCs.
It accords with my own experience that, instead of worrying about always having (or even pretending to have) an answer or advice at your fingertips, the best lawyers will know how to find the answer and craft the advice (often quickly, if needs be) – and then, even more importantly, deliver it in a succinct and commercially-focused way.
What advice would you give to someone looking to make the jump now?
Do your due diligence on what in-house life is really like, particularly in the company or sector into which you are looking to move. No two in-house roles or teams are really the same and I think the days of referring to the generic ‘in-house life’ are gone.
Linked to this, be very clear and honest with yourself as to why you are making the move and what you want to get out of it. I joined private practice saying I wanted to make partner but I’m not sure I really understood at the time what that meant or entailed. Have you read Matthew McConaughey’s memoir “Greenlights“? In it he describes how the only thing he ever knew he wanted to be was a father. I read the book last year and that line really struck. It made me realise that my No.1 life goal has always been to become a father. I think I knew this deep down when considering the in-house move – even if I wasn’t willing or able to ‘admit’ or articulate it back then – but I had a strong sense that moving in-house would help me to sustain the kind of family life I wanted.
And, finally, be prepared for a much less linear career path than in private practice. In-house lawyers tend to move about (between companies and even sectors) much more than their private practice counterparts. This can be unsettling at first, given law firms generally follow a ‘straight line’ path to partnership, but it can lead to a very rewarding career.
What do you miss about private practice?
Having a team of legal experts immediately around you (with whom you can brainstorm issues and advice) and getting a broad but also deep experience of a particular market, sector or area of law from working with a range of clients.
Having said that, the recent explosion of GC and other in-house communities and networks has resulted in invaluable pools of peer expertise on which I can call for help and advice on any new or particularly tricky issue that I’m facing.
Do you have a work-life balance?
I’m actually not a fan of the phrase “work-life balance”. This is because it suggests that you can somehow always achieve a perfect equilibrium between the competing work and non-work aspects of your life, that could, for example, be depicted by a completely straight line on a graph. In reality, I find there are times when work ends up taking up more time, energy and head-space than anything else, and then the reverse is true.
I also think that it’s difficult to see work as being completely independent or separate from all other aspects of your life – it is, for most of us, a key part of who we are and our lives, which is fine, provided it does not come at the expense of the other things in your life that make you happy and healthy. I prefer the term work-life “harmony” – where work and life fit with each other in a complementary way. Balance suggests each facet of your life receives equal attention almost every day, whereas work-life harmony involves meeting your separate needs as and when they arise. For instance, at the end of a working day it can be difficult to switch-off, but I make a conscious effort to put my phone away at bath and bedtime, so that my kids get my undivided attention.
I have worked hard to help create a culture at New Age where we have a lot of flexibility and trust, in terms of where and when we do our work, such that I get to spend a decent amount of time with my family and on myself (for exercise or seeing friends and so on). That is what keeps me happy and sane, whilst helping to keep me motivated during particularly busy times at work.
And finally, what is your favourite ice cream?
Call me old-fashioned, but, in my opinion, you can’t beat a great Scottish or Cornish vanilla ice cream. However, if only to avoid the stereotypical ‘conservative’ lawyer tag, I’d also happily dive straight into a tub of Häagen Dazs Pralines & Cream. I’m aware that one of your previous Scoop guests is also a Häagen Dazs fan, so perhaps we should add here the disclaimer that other ice cream brands are available…..!