Inspiration for lawyers seeking non-legal business roles
This month, in some ‘Downtime’ with James Glover, I caught up with the former exec-level leader and in-house lawyer at Simplyhealth, just before he took up his current position as Interim Head of Legal, at XPO Logistics. He’s a man to inspire litigators, and other lawyers, seeking out non-legal business roles.
James is a rare example of a former litigator who successfully made the transition from in-house legal counsel into non-legal business roles, and then back again. So I found out a bit more about this journey at Simplyhealth (the health insurer and healthcare provider), and his advice for other lawyers who aspire to non-legal business roles – and especially those, like James, who come from a contentious background but also have designs on working in-house. We also uncover an aspiring lead guitarist!
James, start us off by telling us what attracted you to being a lawyer in the first place?
Probably the wrong things! The first lawyer I worked with, before I even went to university, considered the law to be one of only 3 “true professions”, and I think I was seduced by the idea of being in one of them. Since the other two (teaching and medicine) were largely nationalised, it just left the law!
What attracted you to Simplyhealth and what kept you engaged there?
I spent a total of 14 years at Simplyhealth, a health insurer and healthcare provider, in both in-house legal and non-legal business roles. The company’s roots in the mutual sector and very strong customer ethos made it very appealing to me. I also had huge respect for the person I worked for who eventually became the CEO.
I believe the best businesses have a purpose beyond making a profit. For Simplyhealth it was helping people to have better health, which really engaged me. It was also a business where we were always striving for better and were not afraid of change, which I thrive on as a lawyer.
How did the organisation change in your time there and how did it support your own personal development?
The business grew, through acquisition, from about 600 people to 1300 people and diversified away from its core business and a constant and strong customer ethos kept it focused on what was important.
The company gave me an extremely varied career. The CEO had been very supportive of that. I led Simplyhealth’s acquisition of Denplan which was very good in-house legal experience. I had a great team to work with and great external legal advisers in Addleshaw Goddard and in PwC for Corporate Finance. Together we punched above our weight against the other competing bidders.
Aside from my in-house legal responsibilities at Simplyhealth, I also worked in non-legal business roles, as a Managing Director and a Sales and Marketing Director.
How do you feel your legal skills prepared you for non-legal roles, and which of them presented the most challenges for you personally, having come from a legal background?
We all know that being a lawyer is about dealing effectively with ambiguity and balancing risks and opportunities, which of course is the same in running a business. Having had very demanding clients in both practice and in-house, that gave me an understanding of what clients expect in a B2B environment which many of my colleagues didn’t having come from B2C businesses.
What I found most challenging was the constant need to prioritise and reprioritise activity and resources; as a lawyer you’re constantly juggling workloads and priorities but there are usually lots of non-negotiable things that must be done. As an MD, and even more so in sales, it’s often choosing the right things to drop all together that leads to success.
What appealed to you about taking on non-legal roles in the business, and how do you feel it has benefited you in your career?
I really wanted to gain experience of leadership, which of course can be gained through leading a legal team, but I found it a bigger and better challenge to lead a team whose expertise was outside my direct knowledge. For example, I know very little about coding an insurance claims system but loved leading a team with that expertise since, ultimately, everything was focused on delivering the best experience for customers.
This experience helped me massively going back into a legal role as I really understood the business and its challenges. The respect you get from colleagues is different when you’re someone who has actually run a business, and not just been the lawyer advising on legal risk.
Why do you think we don’t see more lawyers going into other non-legal directorships and sitting on exec boards in UK business, compared with America?
My experience of boards in the UK is that there is often still a traditional, two-dimensional view of what a lawyer can bring to the business; we are often viewed as experts in our own field, based on our subject matter knowledge rather than for the skills lawyers need to have, which are completely transferrable.
I also think that a good number of business lawyers don’t aspire to rise to exec level. It’s hard to know whether that’s brought about by the attitudes of their colleagues or because, ultimately, most of us want to do what we’re best at – being a lawyer in a business!
We get a fair number of litigators asking us how easy it is for them to move into a generalist in-house role. Some have had to be quite patient. As a former contentious lawyer yourself, what advice would you give them?
My experience of making that move was to develop a plan for myself, in which I recognised that it wasn’t going to be a simple move direct from litigator in practice to a generalist in-house legal role.
That plan had a few elements.
First, recognise your strengths: most litigators have a broad range of knowledge and experience because we’ve often litigated in different areas of law, acting for a broad range of client businesses and often with an overseas element, something which other specialists haven’t done.
Second, utilise people who know your broader skills and capabilities and don’t just see you as a litigator. In my case, this was to seek out in-house legal secondment opportunities from across the firm since your colleagues will know what you’re capable of.
Thirdly, be flexible. For example, following my secondment from legal practice, to the London Stock Exchange, I was retained by the client. For part of my time there, I became a product manager, which is a long way from my litigation lawyer background!
Who’s been the most influential to you in your career?
I worked for John Fordham at Stephenson Harwood who is a brilliant, but also down to earth, lawyer whose patience and understanding have had a big influence on me. He is one of the world’s “good guys” who I worked for all too briefly.
What is the best piece of career advice you’ve been given.
My boss at Simplyhealth, Romana Abdin always encouraged me to speak out and go with what I felt was right – not strictly career advice but a great steer for life in general
What practical advice would you give to someone looking to join the legal profession now?
Never take yourself too seriously – having fun is an underrated part of doing a great legal job
What do you like to do when you’re not in the office?
I run, cycle and play electric guitar – all of which I’d like to be better at but playing in a band would be my no.1 ambition.
What song was No1 when you qualified?
Saturday Night by Whigfield. Aaargh… the mid 90’s was not a good time for music!
What was your first non-legal job?
I spent a great summer working on a building site as a labourer – great for both getting fit and developing a thick skin from all the banter!
If you could spend an hour with anyone the world of business, politics or entertainment,
who would it be?
Donald Trump! I truly want to understand what motivates him!
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Heat with Al Pacino and Robert de Niro.
I’m a bit old school – my Rega turntable!
Locanda Locatelli in London.
Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?
I love Southern California, but next time we’re spending time (again!) in Ile de Re off the west coast of France.
Your default tipple is…?
Ale, preferably Farmer’s Blonde from the Bradfield Brewery – a farm-based brewer near Sheffield and very close to where I live.
Top 3 things on your “bucket-list”?
1. To ride up the Stelvio, a mountain pass in Italy
2. To visit the Himalayas
3. To live by the sea.
Besides being a lawyer, if money were no object and you knew you couldn’t fail, what would you
most like to try or do?
I’d love to set up a boutique road cycling retreat in the Pyrenees in a converted chateau.
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