Henry Boot General Counsel, Amy Stanbridge
Henry Boot General Counsel Amy Stanbridge shares some of her experiences on her in-house legal journey from training as a solicitor with a local authority to becoming company secretary at the listed parent of the Sheffield-based Henry Boot Group of companies. Having worked in the construction industry now since 2004, Amy manages to juggle a growing legal, company secretarial and insurance team with being a full-time working parent and managing two active Labradors Rupert and Teddy (pictured).
Our interview with Amy is the latest in Florit Legal’s In-house Legal Journeys® series.
As Henry Boot’s GC, please give us an introduction to the group
Henry Boot PLC is the parent company of a group of companies, with operations spanning across construction, property development and strategic land management, and we operate solely within the UK, with our head office being based in Sheffield. As a premium listed PLC, we are subject to the full regime of the Listings Rules and all associated requirements, meaning that although we are a FTSE SmallCap company, there are lots of governance requirements. Within the PLC, my team (comprising legal, company secretarial and insurance) sits alongside all of the other departments providing support services to the subsidiary companies.
What factors made you choose to work there and why is it a good place to work?
As soon as I heard there was a role being advertised at Henry Boot, I was immediately very keen to apply – I’d heard so many good things about what a great place it was to work at, so even though the role (as Group Construction Solicitor) didn’t quite fit my background, I went for it. Luckily, they decided I was bossy enough to work with the construction team and gave me the job! I was also very attracted to the fact it was a new role in the business, and so one that I could take on as a challenge to develop and grow myself, which I have always enjoyed doing.
It’s always quite hard to put your finger on exactly why working for Henry Boot has such a special feel, but I put it down to the fact that people are genuinely very supportive and helpful to each other. Partially I believe this is a legacy of the Boot family influence, which shows itself in wanting to do the right thing, and being here for the long term, being an ambitious yet appropriately cautious business, and wanting to do right by its people.
How has the Henry Boot helped you to develop to General Counsel and what have been the highlights for you professionally?
Since joining the business I have been incredibly fortunate in having been promoted twice into the role I now have, which demonstrates how much value Henry Boot places on growing its own and promoting from within. During my time here I have taken part in our Senior Leadership Development Programme, which was a pretty intense evaluation and development process, following which I was offered coaching and mentoring opportunities. In my role now sitting as part of the Group’s Executive Committee, we are also undertaking some similar work as a collective, developing how we work together as a team. It is always beneficial to me to have opportunities to reflect as you develop and move through your career on where you have got to and what you could look to focus on next – no-one is ever the finished article!
As a construction lawyer it is always quite satisfying to see a finished product that has come about with your involvement, so seeing the Barnsley Glassworks scheme completing, and the schemes now going up in Sheffield City Centre as part of the Heart of the City redevelopment, always provokes a happy smile… In recent times, as our Executive Committee sponsor for ESG, I have been really proud of the Responsible Business approach we have taken, launching our Responsible Business Strategy including aspects focussing on EDI, net zero carbon and community engagement. Henry Boot has always been really keen to give back and do business in a responsible way, and by consolidating this into an overall strategy we are really saying to the world ‘we mean what we say’, which is very gratifying.
Why might now be a good time to join Henry Boot?
Our business has weathered the pandemic extremely well and our strategy sees us looking to grow and develop in lots of ways over the coming years, so it’s a very exciting time to be part of the team. There has always been lots of scope to get involved with projects the business is doing, but now more than ever there is so much variety that sits outside the day job and looks to include the voice of our people to shape what we are doing. Notably at the minute this relates to lots of areas such as EDI, climate change, employee forums…the list goes on. Roles in our business have the scope to take you as far as you want to go and it’s that feeling of support you get to get stuck in and make a difference that is one of the things I love about the way we operate.
What are the key issues facing the industry and for you as an in-house lawyer?
For me, it’s keeping on top of the increasing amount of regulatory and governance requirements that seem to be introduced for businesses of our nature. Corporate governance compliance is increasing, we’re looking at new audit regimes, ever-increasing scrutiny and reporting on ESG matters, and issues like modern slavery and tax compliance are only going to become more rigorous. It requires a structured approach to horizon scanning and keeping the businesses informed of what is coming and how we can best prepare for it, which is a never-ending task!
How do you perceive that the roles and challenges faced by in-house lawyers have changed over the years?
To me the fundamentals stay the same – you have to take off your formal lawyer’s hat and be a commercial partner to the businesses, helping them to do what they need to do in the best way possible, and overcoming barriers together, so that you are seen as a crucial part of their team and not the ‘deal police’. That has always been the case, but for me the challenge now has increased due to the disparate ways in which we work due to agile working. I’m absolutely in favour of companies keeping the best things that have arisen due to the pandemic, and agile working is one of them – but as a team you have to work out how best you can serve your internal clients. Having a physical presence so that they keep you in mind and seek advice at the right time, and so that you can enable knowledge transfer within your own team but more widely across the businesses has been increasingly challenging over the past couple of years. What we have to do now is keep under review how we are working and how best to engage with internal clients so that we keep doing what we do best, which is helping them.
What would you say are the key success factors in working with external counsel, from your perspective?
Helping us to manage expectations is always key, whether that relates to fees, timescales or scope of work – and so if we are not in the loop, we can’t help them do that. Having good lines of communications about the role of the external and internal lawyers in relation to the internal clients and their work is key – and some do it much better than others. We understand what they need to do, but the only way we can support them to do that is if we have visibility of their approach, which can sometimes be lost.
What are the key ingredients you look for when hiring in-house lawyers?
Someone who is willing to get involved in the many random things that in-house teams get asked to do – many of which don’t feel very ‘legal’, but can be about better governance and protocols, it’s incredibly hard to be a strict black letter law subject matter expert in-house. Someone who is prepared to work autonomously, think creatively and get off the fence, not just present a very idealised legal response to a query. And someone who wants to integrate into the team and join our random team chats about dogs, weekend plans, cocktail recipes, sequinned jackets, love of Nicholas Cage and turkey dinosaurs helps!
What made you choose to be a lawyer?
I’ll be honest – I hated my law degree, many aspects of it nearly made me lose the will to live… As a default, feeling I had a lack of any other options, I did my PSC and actually loved it, because practical application of the law was much more appealing. By then I was far too late to have a training contract lined up, and so I happened to end up as a trainee in a local authority – which was absolutely brilliant, and something I can thoroughly recommend. Totally thrown in at the deep end, doing hearings at the Magistrates Court, negotiating contracts, briefing Councillors… There is so little resource in a local authority that you have to stand on your own two feet, and I really thrived there. It was from then on that I really saw my career as being in-house, because I loved the autonomy, the fact you got to concentrate on your client base and get to know them, got to be a respected voice in the room rather than ‘just the lawyer’, and also the collegiate nature of the teams.
To what extent have you benefited from executive coaching in your professional life?
Following my Senior Leadership Development Programme assessment, I was offered coaching, and it focussed on a number of areas: gaining confidence and shaking off the horrible imposter feeling; juggling various workstreams and delegation; and developing my authentic leadership style. It really supported me at a time when I was moving into a leadership role and gave me some crucial time to spend just reflecting on where I was and what I wanted to do going forwards.
I am now at the start of another coaching journey too, which relates to a different juggling exercise – that of being a full-time working parent! It can be very easy when you return to work from having a baby to assume everything will stay the same and yet in reality you are trying to split your brain between two competing sets of demands, which nothing can prepare you for. So, I’m very grateful to have been offered some support to reflect, again, on where I am and what this means for me as I progress. And it’s ok to recognise, whether through alterations to your role, parenthood, or other shifting circumstances, that your life has changed and that you need some help with that.
Before you took up your current role, what’s the most memorable interview question you’ve been asked?
One that stands out to me from when I looked to make the transition from local authority to industry (not asked in my Henry Boot interview!) was ‘How do you think you’re going to survive away from the comfortable world of a local authority?’. It taught me a few things: some people approach interviews in a fairly adversarial way, be prepared to be thrown some curveballs and attempt to keep your facial expressions under control – and that I didn’t want to work at that company!
And the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
The best piece of advice I was given was by my manager at Sheffield City Council, Andrew Bullock, who said if you’re in a pickle, just stop and think ‘we are where we are’. It might sound glib, but sometimes sitting back, reviewing what the situation is, having a calm moment and looking at what needs to be resolved in the round can save your bacon. And also, looking backwards to try and assign blame is often not very helpful in the moment – of course, lessons learned are vital, but save that for after the storm has passed.
What advice would you give to lawyers looking to move in-house and what would you say are the keys to success?
Think carefully about what you want your day-to-day work to look like. If you love being involved in the academic minutiae of intricate pieces of law, or being ultra-focussed on a particular area of practice, in-house life probably isn’t for you. If you like really digging into the needs of your client, fast-paced work, taking a commercial view and getting stuck in, moving in-house could suit you well! Having a backbone of general commercial law knowledge always comes in very handy, as well as a general interest in company law, compliance and regulation.
A good in-house lawyer has a keen interest in the business, its operations, strategy, risks and opportunities – this gives the context of what you are there to help the business achieve and manage. You have to be willing to turn your hand to anything, and to acknowledge (and be comfortable with the fact) you might not be an expert on a particular area of law – being able to quickly research, and provide concise, easily understandable guidance is key. Getting bogged down in jargon or obscure legal niches will impress no-one and annoy everyone! When starting somewhere new, I’d advise getting out and about in the business – meet people, go on site, go to regional offices, get to social events. The more people know you, the more they are likely to pick up the phone when something pops up, and you are more likely to get to know how the business works.
When should a company first hire in-house counsel?
Obviously if a lot of money is being spent on external legal fees, this is a significant flag that there could be efficiencies to be made – but also if a company has a growth agenda, it is a valuable investment to have someone in the business at an early stage to help guide and shape that growth in a sustainable and risk-controlled way.
We often learn the most when we’ve made the wrong call on something. Looking back, what particular personal experiences come to mind for you?
It is very easy to default to your position as ‘the lawyer’, not wanting to venture outside of your legal brief, but I recall knowing that a decision was not the right one, and not feeling that I had the mandate to say anything. In retrospect, I wish I had spoken out – even if I had been overruled, at least I would have felt I had been true to my opinion and not kicking myself for not being brave enough to shout up. Particularly in-house, I have always found that no-one is surprised for lawyers to have a view and contribute it – be bold and add in your view.
What role do you see for artificial intelligence in the legal profession and especially from the perspective of in-house lawyers?
I could certainly see that for particular industries, where contracts or processes are highly standard and replicable, that AI could make those aspects a lot easier. Where it becomes difficult is in industries where the contracts and processes differ every time – in our business, very few schemes are the same, and require bespoke advice. I see there being a role for AI alongside traditional advice, but it would be a rare situation where a legal operation could function on AI alone.
What do you do to support your own mental health and that of your team?
One of the issues I believe has come about as a result of the pandemic is how difficult people find it to separate work life from home life, and that persists now.
I advocate for my team to take proper breaks and holidays, and to set and keep to their working time boundaries, and I will support them to do that.
Flexible start and finish times are a big part of agile working, and can really help people to get better balance, provided they don’t succumb to availability guilt and end up working all hours. By trying as much as possible to practice what I preach, hopefully that not only helps me but helps the team to have the confidence to do the same.
How have work patterns changed at the company as a result of Covid?
Our agile working framework allows teams throughout the business to decide what works best for them in terms of working locations, patterns and rotas, including start and finish times. Due to on/off lockdowns, it has been difficult to get into a steady groove of how we optimise our team’s approach, but no doubt we have irrevocably changed how we work and it is now down to how we refine the implementation.
How did lockdown affect you and have there been any surprising highs, lessons or things you have learned?
Lockdown was a huge rollercoaster – in around January 2020, we formed a Coronavirus Committee to respond to this new growing threat, and dealing with a huge influx of new information, guidance and working practices taught me a lot about business continuity and many associated issues. Trying to deal with that workload at the same time as attempting to get our financial results signed off in the midst of huge global turbulence, convening many last minute Board meetings, constantly shifting and refining our protocols… despite the intensity and the late nights and the grey hairs, I can say it was a massive learning curve and taught me a lot about resilience and adaptability. And I came out of the first lockdown with a puppy, and the third one with a baby, so life changed in many other ways too!
What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?
I’d enjoy getting home from work to a lovely clean house, sitting around in some pristine loungewear, having a casual gin and tonic and watching a film with a gourmet meal. What I do instead, with an 11 month old baby and two Labradors, is attempt to remove food and/or hair from every surface of the house, sing ‘Old MacDonald’ approximately 1 billion times a day, cobble together some beans on toast and collapse into bed…
What was your very first job?
I had a Sunday paper round, which took me all over my village – all I’ll say is, you see some sights on a Sunday morning..
If you could spend an hour with anyone in the world of business, politics or entertainment, who would it be?
I’d love to spend an hour with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I find her such an inspirational figure – outspoken, liberal, and absolutely unafraid to advocate for the underdog.
The idea of being in politics terrifies me – I’d want to ask her how she manages to deal with the brickbats, and the constant personal scrutiny, which seems even more pronounced for a young woman in her field.
I’d also be interested to know how she manages to seem as if she doesn’t care what people think about her and appear confident in a world that must be so difficult to navigate. I also reckon she’d know some cracking cocktail bars, so I’d ask her if she wanted to go try some out…
My favourite film is Amelie, for mainly nostalgic reasons – I watched it for the first time in a little arty cinema in Nottingham when I was a student, with my lovely and now sadly deceased uncle, who was always such a fun, bohemian character. The film is so quirky, cheeky, and colourful – like him. Every time I watch it, it makes really happy.
Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?
Barbados will always have a special place in my heart – it is where my husband proposed to me, cocktail in hand, watching the sunset over the ocean. The island is so much fun, with lots of beautiful caves, forests and shorelines. We snorkelled with turtles, did street karaoke, and went on a slightly hairy driven tour in a crammed car with dodgy suspension.
I’d love to say the next plans are anywhere near as glamorous, but I’m being a huge wimp about foreign travel with a baby, so am sticking to the UK for now – Whitby here I come!
If money were no object and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you most like to try or do?
It depends when you ask me – on gorgeous sunny days I’d want to be a dog walker, and get to be outdoors all the time, exploring the best walks in beautiful Sheffield and meeting all the lovely doggies. Then it will rain, and I’d remember the aforementioned dog hair annoyances, and want to do something more glamorous like being a personal shopper, so I could spend other people’s money on beautiful things… then I’d remember I couldn’t keep any of those things myself, and think of something else… there’s too much choice!
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