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SmartSearch General Counsel, Nicola Gifford

July 15, 2021

SmartSearch General Counsel and Company Secretary, Nicola Gifford takes time out from her role at the award-winning, Yorkshire based Reg Tech company to offer some advice to lawyers seeking in-house legal roles and some insight into her own in-house legal journey. 

As General Counsel, and for those not familiar with SmartSearch, tell us a little more about your company

SmartSearch is a market-leading all-in-one Anti-Money Laundering (AML), Fraud Prevention and Know Your Customer (KYC) platform which delivers JMLSG-compliant AML verification for individuals and businesses in the UK and international markets. The innovative platform provides a multi-award-winning solution which is continually developed in response to client feedback and to the rapidly evolving AML landscape.  Our customers are mainly regulated business like law firms,  accountants and estate agents.

What attracted you to SmartSearch?

I joined SmartSearch as General Counsel because I believed they were going places as one of the fastest growing companies in Europe and the UK and I wanted to be a part of it.

It was a new industry for me and one in which SmartSearch is a multi-award-winning company including a Queen’s Award for Enterprise (innovation).

What’s been your biggest challenge so far and what projects have you enjoyed working on most?

I’ve only been here 6 months and It’s been really the speed of growth (and the projects that has come with that) that has been the most challenging and exciting.

I’ve taken on company secretarial responsibilities and decided to complete a diploma in corporate governance to further assist me and the company grow.

Project-wise, it’s got to be the old favourite GDPR! Post Brexit, working in a company where data is our life blood I need to keep completely up to speed. I’m keeping a close eye on the much publicised changes the UK could make to its data protection laws and wondering how they might affect our newly granted “adequacy” status. With this in mind I’ve just trained the entire company on GDPR and what it actually means in practice in SmartSearch.

Based on your past experiences, what would you like law firms to do that they don’t currently do?

Just be more concise in their advice and not sit on the fence so much! Drives me loopy because we have to then “translate” their advice before its suitable to present to the business. It’s a waste of my time!

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

Relevant experience has to be top, and being commercial. Also, as an in-house lawyer, it’s important not to be phased when out of the ordinary things come to your desk. For example, times when a company park is occupied by travellers or your sales guy is given a Rolex watch and asks if he’s able to keep it!

What made you choose the legal profession?

If I’m being totally honest I studied law and Russian at university to keep my future career options open and really enjoyed law.

I like the rigour, organisation and brain power it demands and the scope for continuous learning and most of all I like solving problems and helping people. And then during my career I’ve been lucky to work in companies where I’ve been able to do things I find interesting, challenging and rewarding.

Have you had any unusual interview experiences along the way? 

I interviewed for the Japan Exchange and Teaching programme after university, and before The Law Society Finals at York. It took place at the Japanese Embassy in London. In an enormous room, I sat in front of 6 people on one large table in front of a sole chair on which I sat. It was incredibly daunting! They asked me how to spell quizzes!

What is the best piece of career advice you’ve received? 

I was participating in a Europe-wide legal training for Johnson & Johnson executives, 200 at a time. The coach we had told us not to worry about it, since no one in the audience knew what we were going to say, so if we forgot part of our presentation they wouldn’t know the difference!

Whenever I do a presentation, whether formal or informal, I always remember that.

What advice would you give to someone in practice looking to move in-house?

Prepare to roll your sleeves up and get stuck in. Don’t be afraid and be prepared for anything. Embrace the variety and, above all, be commercial and think about how your advice will land and how it relates to the business your working in.

How do you get the best out of the first 100-days in a new in-house legal role?

By being nosey and curious, asking lots of questions, so that you really understand the business in which you’re working as quickly as possible.

Try not to pressure yourself too much in the first 100 days, you can’t learn everything all at once. Immerse yourself in the business and listen and learn, it will pay dividends.

What was your very first job?  

As a lawyer is was as an articled clerk at Dibb Lupton Broomhead in Leeds, but my very first job was as a silver service waitress in a country club with a white frilly apron!

What’s the most interesting/enjoyable book you’ve read in the last year?

The Guest List by Lucy Foley

Any hidden talents? 

I can say the alphabet backwards very quickly!

Favourite film or play.

Les Misérables

Favourite holiday destination so far, and where next?

Bergen, Norway. I’d love to explore more of Scandinavia in the forlorn hope of seeing the Northern lights

Most embarrassing moment?

Having a bed bath on a mixed ward in a Japanese hospital when I was interrupted by a flower delivery boy, I’m not sure who was the most embarrassed him or me!

Most annoying phrase you’ve heard at work.

“Can you reach out to him/her?”

If you weren’t SmartSearch’s General Counsel, and money were no object, what would you most like to do?

I’d want to be a doctor. I really love helping people.


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