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Keepmoat General Counsel, Louise Casey

March 12, 2024

Keepmoat General Counsel & Company Secretary, Louise Casey

Keepmoat General Counsel & Company Secretary, Louise Casey provides the focus for the latest in Florit Legal’s In-house Legal Journeys® interviews.

For Louise Casey, the transition from her Senior Legal Director role at Asda, to General Counsel at Keepmoat Homes wasn’t just a career move; it was a leap into yet another world teeming with purpose and passion.

In the latest of our senior in-house lawyer interviews, Louise shares her motivations for making the switch, detailing the unique challenges and opportunities that come with being the legal guardian of a major housebuilder. From navigating complex regulations to fostering a collaborative legal team, Louise offers valuable some advice for lawyers contemplating an in-house move, particularly those considering the house building industry and who may have thought that it was only for real estate lawyers. It’s not.

If you’re looking for inspiration and practical guidance on how to translate your legal expertise into building a fulfilling career within a purpose-driven organisation, look no further than Louise Casey’s journey. Then perhaps consider joining her to develop yours*.

* We are currently retained to help build Keepmoat’s legal and compliance team. Andy Balmer is taking up the reins on the project, in which 2 roles exist for people who might have come from a range of professional legal backgrounds and skills-bases – particularly construction law, dispute resolution and regulatory compliance work, in addition to corporate and commercial matters.  So if you would like to be considered, and have at least 2 years PQE in one or more of those practice areas, then please email Andy, to arrange some introductory dialogue.

For those not so familiar with house building, please tell us a little more about Keepmoat Homes

Keepmoat is a top 10 house builder (based on the volume of homes it builds) committed to building high quality new homes and creating sustainable new communities.  Its unique selling point is its ability to flex its offering across private house sales and social housing. Keepmoat has over 200+ partnerships including Homes England and many registered providers of social housing.

It’s a dynamic and innovative business, focussing on sustainability and design quality for the communities it builds.

What influenced you to join Keepmoat and why is it a great place to work?     

It was a hard decision to leave my last role, in truth I wasn’t sure I ever would. I had the chance to work with great people, in a fast paced environment on really interesting projects. However, the more I got to know what Keepmoat was about, what it stood for and how it operated I knew it was absolutely the right next move for me.

If I have to narrow it down to key factors I’d probably narrow it down to:-

  • People: I can almost hear the yawn and visualise the eye roll, but from the top down, the colleagues at all levels genuinely believe and are passionate about what they do.  That passion creates an energy in and of itself which is infectious and means that everyone pulls in the same direction.
  • Purpose: I need to believe in what I do. That may sound trite but delivering more affordable, sustainable homes in the UK, amidst a housing shortage, planning delays and an environmentally challenged world, certainly fits that bill.
  • Customer: In my view great customer care and service speaks volumes about the business and its people. Keepmoat have the customer at the heart of everything they do and, coming from the retail sector, that really resonated with me.
  • Corporate Values: It’s really important in my view, no matter what level you enter a business, to fit culturally with what you stand for. Keepmoat’s Values are: straightforward, passionate, collaborative and creative, they are part of the DNA (and not just the coffee cups) and most people who know me can probably guess why these values resonate so much.
  • Growth mindset: The business has a real growth mindset and is open to embrace new ways of thinking and new ideas from all colleagues in any role. I love that, as it means everyday is a learning day and every day you develop a little bit more.

Summarise the career challenges presented to you and some of the highlights so far?

I joined the business in the Summer of 2023. I knew that I would love the new challenge, and that I’d need to embrace the learning curve of understanding a new sector, as well as a new business – at a time the sector was going through lots of legislative change and increased scrutiny from regulators, whilst also being a hot public topic. All of that set against the background of an ambitious business wanting to grow.

I’ve been very lucky in my career to have had the opportunity to work in both private practice and in-house, on some incredible transactions. My highlights professionally have arisen from being given the opportunity to learn something new and take on new challenges, big and small. Those have arisen through a combination of:-

  • Luck – right time, right place;
  • Right sponsorship – I have had some incredible sponsors and mentors over the years;
  • No fear – personal appetite to try something new and develop myself out of my comfort zone; and
  • An optimistic “can do” attitude.

What are the key issues facing construction and what is the impact for you and your team? 

There is a housing shortage, yet housing developers are facing more red tape, longer timescales to obtain planning, increased costs to deliver more sustainable homes and environments – all at a time when salaries are not rising but the cost of living (mortgages, energy bills) continue to increase.  For the in-house team here, we are looking at how we can support the business deliver its strategy, streamline processes where we can, engage with lobbying and consultations where appropriate.  It’s an exciting time for the in-house Keepmoat team and there’s real opportunity to influence and define new ways of working.

What are the biggest challenges for in-house lawyers?

It’s a privilege being an in-house lawyer or compliance professional, you are often at the heart of so many transactions or processes across the business you work in.  No-one will know the business better than the in-house team, they can really business partner both operationally and with external advisers. They are often a translator and key to ensuring that all stakeholder angles are considered.

The best in-house legal and compliance teams are not there to simply paper the transaction/solution at the end but are proactively engaged from the outset to help solve the problem. Legal and compliance teams can be quite creative in their problem solving. However, we all know that in-house lawyers and compliance professionals can quickly become a victim of their own success once everyone knows the value they can bring. Therefore, it’s key for in-house lawyers to continuously improve and think about what else can be operationalised and moved off their desk into a process or system, for the business to do themselves with the right guardrails.

What’s the key to a good working relationship with external lawyers? 

I’ve been fortunate to develop some great partnerships with some of the panel firms I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve also had some really catastrophic law firm relationships.

Having a lead client partner you can build a relationship with is critical to success, for both the law firm and the business. It takes times and effort to move away from a purely transactional relationship with multiple lawyers from one firm, to a more partnership way of working. The more you work together with your client partner and they have oversight of all matters, the more they understand the risk appetite of the business, its approach and the key metrics that matter and they take the lead then in training their own people and ensuring they run internal client academies/sharing sessions, the more it lightens the load for both parties. 

My biggest pet hate is surprises, particularly cost overruns. In-house counsel are managing to pre-approved budgets so ensuring that any changes or increases to cost are discussed first is an absolute base line. One firm I have had the pleasure of working with over the years, approaches fee earning not from an hourly rate perspective but a value based approach.  It is up to the firm how they resource instructions but their client partner always fronted it.  I really liked that and it engendered confidence that the law firm knew the strategic importance of certain matters.

When you recruit in-house legal and compliance people, what are the key things you look for? 

  • Positive, passionate and energetic;
  • Creative and organised;
  • Detailed, pragmatic and customer focused;
  • A self-starter and team player.   

Why is it a good time to join Keepmoat, as an in-house lawyer?

Keepmoat is a housebuilder with an appetite to grow at the time of a housing shortage.  There will be no end of opportunity for the right candidates with the right attitude.

The Legal & Compliance team is really valued at Keepmoat. Our colleagues appreciate the difference the Legal & Compliance team make and will actively seek out support from the team.

The range of areas we support is incredibly varied from land acquisition and disposals, to disputes, employment issues, commercial contracts, finance, public procurement, corporate activity, money laundering, data issues to name but a few.

We are at a pivotal stage in our transformation journey and anyone joining now would be joining at the start of an exciting journey where they can help make a difference, design, influence and deliver. It may daunt some, but it will excite others if they are happy to dare to try.

What’s the most challenging, unusual or thought-provoking interview question you’ve ever been asked?

The one I always ask, which makes my team smile/roll their eyes every time is:

 “What animal would you be and why?”.

Some of the answers candidates put forward are so interesting and insightful!

Who’s been the most influential to you in your career?

I have been very lucky with sponsors, peer mentors, reverse mentors, panel lawyer mentors and fantastic industry leaders over the years both in private practice and in house, both male and female, lawyers and non-lawyers. To name them all would sound like a roll call, but they continue to be very much part of my network. 

If I had to call out any specifically there would be 3, each of which have made the biggest impact on my career. Aili Marshall interviewed me for my training contract and took a chance on a young scouser with no connections in the legal world. Neil McLean was a catalyst in my later private practice life, he encouraged me to value and nurture client and team relationships, whilst also demanding exacting high standards. Helen Selby gave me my wings in house, encouraging me to think differently and start with a blank page. A luxury and a freedom not often given, but a joy to embrace.

The most memorable advice was given to me by Hayley Tatum as I left to start my new role at Keepmoat, which was “Do what only you can. Allow others to do what they can.” That really struck a chord.

Have you ever been coached in your professional life and how do you feel you benefited from it?

Yes, I was very fortunate to have an executive coach, Fiona Holden, The Holden Partnership for a couple of years whilst at Asda. Having an executive coach challenged me in a number of ways, it elevated my thought processes, made me reflect and analyse situations from different view points all of which supported my personal development in managing and influencing a wide variety of stakeholders. We discussed all sorts including personal impact, values and boundaries.  The sessions themselves were really tough and emotionally and mentally draining. They are not for the faint hearted but they are invaluable if you pick the right coach and are open to the process.  The rapport I built with Fiona was key to the success of the mentoring sessions and I will always value that.  

What pieces of practical advice would you give to a lawyer looking to move in-house?

Moving in-house is really rewarding, whilst you may only have one client, you have multiple demands on your time from different stakeholders and a very varied workload.

You don’t need to be the expert in all areas, therefore you need to feel comfortable to admit when something is outside your area of expertise. Humility is a real asset.

Good judgement is essential.

Be decisive and ready to make a call on the facts in front of you. Do not simply provide the options.

How should in-house lawyers deal with mistakes? 

I always say to my team, you learn more from your mistakes.

There have been times in my career where I have not quite got it right, whether it be in a physical piece of work, relaying information to stakeholders or managing colleagues. You feel sick when you know it’s gone awry, you overthink and catastrophise.   

The best advice I can give is mistakes are rarely fatal in the law. Do face into them, learn from them, discuss them and then put into practice so you don’t repeat them. It’s unlikely you will have got everything wrong so take the good from it too.  We are all human and we don’t always get it right but if you are trying your best then others will support and coach you. A problem shared is a problem halved.

How should in-house lawyers navigate their first 100 days in a new role? 

In the first 100 days, meet as many people as you possibly can, be curious, enquire about what works well, what doesn’t, what they’d like more of. 

Listen (really listen), learn, absorb, ask questions, then form a plan and discus it with your team to understand who else in the business you may need to start delivering on your plan.   

Whatever you do, don’t wait to be spoon fed, the inhouse team will more often than not be small.  If you don’t know something just ask, people will want to help you be a success.

At what point in the growth curve would you say is most appropriate for a company to hire its first in-house legal counsel?

That’s a great question and I think the answer is it depends on the sector, the jurisdictions it will operate in, the skill set of the board and the aspiration for growth.  It’s highly unlikely a start up will have an in-house lawyer but a start up FS company may warrant an in-house lawyer quicker than some other sectors given the highly regulated nature of the business.

What piece of legal tech could you not do without? 

There are a few but my favourite is probably High Q Collaborate.  I love how diverse its uses are from legal front door, instruction intake, data room to, document repository and most of all the data and dashboards. For in-house lawyers data is key to be able to articulate how you add value to the business. I’ve used it previously in, in-house roles and some of my current panel are using it for Keepmoat now.

What’s your view of AI in the legal profession? 

I think legal operations, legal tech and AI are really important for both private practice and in house lawyers or all levels of PQE to embrace. I’m passionate about this personally and encourage my teams to embrace it too.  I had a great opportunity to speak on this with Kerry Westland at Addleshaws at an FT Innovative Lawyers event, I think they quite liked my quote “dinosaurs die!”  

For in-house lawyers, where resource is tight the right use of tech/AI etc can mean high volume, low value, low risk matters and/or frequently asked questions can be undertaken by the business but within a controlled environment freeing them up to be more involved in the interesting strategic work. However, don’t underestimate that it is hard yards to get there and it takes a lot of commitment and investment alongside the day job. You have to start with the right data, then process, then people and last of all the tech. It’s essential to get the quick wins done, to share the success, the benefits in real time for your team and colleagues to understand. Then you have your advocates in the business shouting about the benefits alongside you or even better on your behalf without you even knowing.  

How do you support your mental health and that of your team?

I have to get out and walk/run and I enjoy yoga as a way to decompress. I encourage the team to do the same. Nature is really helpful and our Doncaster HQ is on a lake so quite a beautiful environment..

We also “check in”, we celebrate the good and we share what’s on our minds on a weekly basis together as a team and in our 1:1.

What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

Being with the family and travelling. We bought a motorhome a couple of years ago and love getting out to the country with the kids and the dog.

What was your very first job and what attracted you to the legal profession?  

My first job was Saturday girl in Savers in Sunderland for £1.59 an hour. I always knew from a young age I wanted to be a lawyer.  I’ve always been determined and focussed.

Who would you most like to get stuck in a lift with?

Michelle Obama.  I have a lot of admiration for Michelle, a successful female lawyer, married to a lawyer (then president) raising a family with grace and dignity.  I’d love to know what has been the best professional moment in her life, either as a lawyer or as First Lady.

What’s the most enjoyable book you’ve read recently?

I love popcorn books, clearly to give the mind a rest of course!  I really enjoyed Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club and am now reading the whole series.

Do you have a hidden talent?

Not sure it is a hidden talent but I am attempting to learn how to play the piano.

Favourite film

Favourite Christmas film: Elf

Favourite non Christmas film: Gladiator

Favourite gadget.

Apple watch

Favourite restaurant.

Muse in Yarm, closely followed by Fourteen Drops also in Yarm for either pre- or post-dinner drinks.

Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?

Florida, there is something for everyone. Off to Italy next, going to travel around a little, Venice, Lake Garda and Rome

At the end of a hard week, what’s a treat that you look forward to?

A large glass of Malbec (drunk responsibly of course)

What 3 things would you put at the top of your “bucket-list”?

(1) Marathon. (2) Learn to fly a plane. (3) Sky diving. 

Most embarrassing moment?

Having to get dressed up as a pea. The “peas” had different personalities and we were launching a new tool with the team about understanding your strengths and opportunities.

Besides being a lawyer, what would you most like to try or do?

I’ve always dreamt about running a wedding dress shop

Most annoying phrase you’ve heard at work.

“Circle back” – makes me cringe every time.

What would you say is your guilty pleasure?

Costa gingerbread latte at Christmas.

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