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Q&A: RBS general counsel Collins on external advisers, technology and the stress of investigations

Set to take on the top legal role at Santander UK later this year, The Royal Bank of Scotland’s outgoing general counsel (GC) John Collins (pictured) talks to Sarah Downey about his career and the growing recognition of in-house lawyers.

Tell me about the evolution of the GC…

It depends how far forward you roll… but UK GCs ought to become more strategically important across the board – some companies but not all will embrace the role in a manner similar to the US where GCs are naturally at the top table and seen as one of the senior officers in the bank and whose counsel is taken properly as the broad consigliere. Without sounding too much like a robot… paralegals and documentation teams increasingly will be mobilised with oversight from specialist lawyers because there should be software and technology available to perform the tasks larger groups of specialist human beings perform today.

What kind of leader are you?

Supportive and coaching… with a smattering of pace setting when needed. I try to engage people and bring them with me. I’m not dictatorial…

What are your dealings with external advisers like?

They should provide good, strong services, value for money and invest in the relationship and equally the institution should value that service, the quality and expertise, not just price. You draw a balance. What has changed the most is that we look more carefully at how we extract value and what we pay for externally versus internally. We did when we relaunched the panel three years ago and more recently. The big operational change is deconstruction of service so we pay law firms for high-end advice and consider the use of LPOs and other providers for the volume work – paying the right rate for the job. We also use the Mexican wave approach – we get a couple of law firms to work together, one which has expertise, the other which is better for the volume work.

What has been your worst day in the office?

I have had to deal with a lot of complex and difficult issues. Briefing management on why you have to behave in a particular way – self investigate and make sure you’re on the front foot and being co-operative is a hard path to walk. But it’s in the best interests of the institution in the end. The hardest part is often the human impact – the consequences for individuals and the stress of being the subject of often protracted investigations.

Who do you admire?

Bob Hoyt at Barclays is doing a good job and is a pleasure to deal with. Kate Cheetham is a strong colleague at Lloyds – I value her opinions on things – she’s a good thinker. From time to time where appropriate we share best practice – it’s about focusing on moving the role of the GC in the right direction.

Would you ever return to private practice?

No, I’m too old. I’m used to working hard but the idea of working hard and having to go out and chase business, essentially be someone who attempts to rain make… it doesn’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t be very comfortable having to go out and schmooze and market myself to people.