Legal Business Blogs

Building a career structure at 02 and why IQs are rated higher than experience

The in-house legal profession grew by 137% between 2001 and 2011 and with that growth has come new issues of succession and sustainability for legal teams; issues that are already being addressed at 02.

While law firms undoubtedly rely too much on the pyramid model, in-house teams have traditionally been too flat, reliant on recruiting costly experienced lawyers and often able to offer them little in the way of career progression.

At 02, general counsel Ed Smith (pictured), who took over the role in 2011 following a reorganisation of the Spanish giant’s UK and European operations, is recruiting bright junior lawyers, eschewing the hire of bigger names in favour of putting in place a career structure and stretching his pennies further.

New faces includes legal counsel Harry Robinson, a former trainee at Baker & McKenzie, who was hired to the IP team a year ago.

Speaking to Legal Business, Smith explains: ‘I’d rather hire someone who is clever but junior than someone even marginally less clever but with more experience. That’s because lack of experience can be remedied as there will be no shortage of experience here. As yet I have been unable to increase people’s IQs.

‘Ideally, newcomers should be cleverer than me, better trained than me, and at least equally as driven as I am. The brand and the quality of work that we do here is such that it attracts great applicants from all quarters, notwithstanding that we don’t compete with private practice salaries. I hire the most talented people I can afford!’

In a mini re-structure of the 30-strong O2 team just before the summer, former head of the IP team Julia Boyle – who has previously worked at legacy firms Norton Rose and Freehills – was promoted to head the marketing and consumer team which advises on Telefonica UK’s relationships with its 20 million retail consumers. Solicitors coming up the ranks include employment counsel Susie Howard, who spent five years as a solicitor at Walker Morris before joining the 02 team in 2010.

In common with many in-house lawyers, these solicitors feel they are given plenty of opportunity to learn and grow, entrusted as they are with more responsibility than in private practice. ‘You are not cosseted in-house,’ explains Boyle. ‘Harry [Robinson] has been here for one year and she could give advice to a director.

‘She’s not merely a junior lawyer taking notes. As a junior, in private practice you’re sometimes told not to speak on a call because they don’t want the client to know you’re there. In house you will be leading the calls. Its great experience.’

Much of this resonates with Legal Business’s in-house survey 2013, which found that in-house teams are growing in stature and retaining much more work in-house.

The key issue for many is how to build on this going forward. Smith adds: ‘The team is in great shape now. It’s full of very talented professionals who are driven and influential. They are advising at the heart of the major changes Telefonica UK is experiencing. The way I’ve rebuilt the team since I became GC in 2011 is in part the result of simple economics. I am under pressure to reduce costs and so if I want great people, they need to be junior people. Once you accept this, it has a strangely liberating effect and creates a virtuous cycle within the team.’