Profile | Summer 2018
Shortly before Richard Price went in-house as group general counsel and company secretary at Anglo American, the legal team’s headcount was cut in half. This was not coupled with a reduced workload, however. Expectations remained the same.
Quite a platform for Price, a former external adviser to the company as Shearman & Sterling’s co-head of mining and metals, to find his feet in-house after more than 20 years in private practice.
It also made his ambition to exert a greater commercial impact with his GC switch that much harder. ‘You have the opportunity to exercise an appropriate degree of influence over decisions that actually impact people and things, much more so than being in private practice. They’re two very different roles.’
Price came to the job from Shearman’s London office, where he had been partner from 2003, and held roles including the aforementioned head of mining and metals, head of EMEA capital markets and co-head of the EMEA corporate practice, as well as deputy office managing partner.
Before that the Canadian had a stint in Shearman’s Singapore office as a partner, where he headed the firm’s South-East Asian and Indian capital markets and corporate practice, and even earlier in its Toronto office. He began his career in Toronto in 1988 with Canadian firm McMillan Binch.
I can foresee a day where the role of a junior lawyer in a big law firm has been eliminated as a result of technology.
The GC role became available following the retirement of incumbent Ben Keisler after 32 years. And the pressure was on for the new boy. The FTSE 100-listed mining giant – the world’s largest producer of platinum – was wrestling with subdued commodity prices. Having announced a $3bn loss in 2015, Anglo would later in 2015 unveil a sweeping restructuring touted as axing more than half its 135,000 global workforce.
Price says he inherited a strong, well-respected in-house team at Anglo American, but it was under pressure to get closer to the business at a high-stakes period. One step was his appointment to the company’s group management committee as he took the GC role in May 2017, the first time legal had secured a seat at the executive table.
The second came six months into his role: a survey of the business for its views on the delivery of legal services. This asked both how legal could improve its core delivery but also how it could help the broader business achieve its objectives. It was about taking the legal team from something of a necessary evil to one where the team adds value.
‘There’s two critical roles that we play: one, we’re the guardian of the franchise, we’re looking out for the corporation and doing things to appropriately manage risk. The other part of it, which is really the key, is to help the business to achieve its commercial objectives. For the most part those two roles are aligned.’
Overall, Price says the response to the survey was positive, but the business wanted to see more value. It also highlighted an imbalance in certain areas between what the legal team could handle itself and what was being outsourced. There was obviously a cost justification in bringing more work in-house, but it was also about providing more effective advice in certain areas. Added to this was prioritising the work of the 70-strong legal team – spread between a core base in Johannesburg and London, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Australia and Singapore – and working smarter.
A big part of Price’s first year, in combination with South Africa head of legal Kevin Lester, has been getting a handle on what strengths the team has and where it needs to improve. Lester has effectively been working as a legal chief operating officer, although it is not an official title.
The team was historically structured around geography but now includes a layer of specialists in areas like M&A, disputes and commercial. This shift began with Keisler but has been recently accelerated. Price comments: ‘These things take a while. There’s obviously outsourcing to external law firms, there’s sending a certain category of work to legal process outsourcing firms, there is helping areas of the business with templates and standardising processes so they can do the work themselves, without resorting to legal.’
While Anglo American’s in-house team will never strengthen an area such as M&A to the point it would not need external counsel for a big deal, Price still sees room for growth in that area. Disputes is another area – doing more in-house but in partnership with law firms. It is not necessarily about adding headcount, but reshaping structures to support areas that need it most.
He credits Lester’s work reconfiguring his team in South Africa following the 2016 headcount reduction as influencing the strategy the wider in-house department has taken. Because the South Africa team was faced with doing the same amount of work with far fewer people it looked into legal process outsourcing, which was not particularly developed in that country.
We’ve got to have a seat at the table. It’s critical in a highly-regulated world, where we’re all held to higher legal and ethical standards.
It experimented with some early technology, chiefly around supporting administrative work, which was eating up resource, but also to aid with reporting. Technology is now top of the agenda for the legal function, to find solutions for non-priority work and free up the stretched team. It had a fact-finding mission in London assessing artificial intelligence (AI) solutions recently, but recognises an easier, and more essential, entry point will be technology for document and knowledge management.
That said, the team is less convinced those solutions yet exist. ‘They’re close. From everything I hear, the technology is there. It’s the application to what we do that’s still missing and it may take some time for the industry to get to that point.’
Price also has some criticism of law firms, saying they are not using technology as much as ‘is being hyped’. However, he believes technology will change the fundamental relationships between clients and firms.
‘I can foresee a day, maybe five years from now, where the role of a junior lawyer in a big law firm has been eliminated or reduced as a result of technology and that has serious implications for the business model of the big law firms. They’re already coming under pressure for other reasons and that will just put them under greater pressure.’
Recent work highlights for his team include, in early May, the $101m settlement of the silicosis and tuberculosis class-action litigation brought by miners in South Africa, which Anglo American was involved with due to previous gold mine interests. There has also been a trio of company disposals this year: a thermal coal project in South Africa for $71m, other thermal coal operations in the same country for $164m, and a coal mine in Australia.
‘Those are the big-ticket items. Day to day, everybody is operating with a view to adding value in whatever area they focus on.’
That phrase, ‘adding value’, again. Price has broad objectives for what success in this transformation project will look like in a year’s time. ‘The ultimate vision is to be seen as the value-creative, strategic partner to the business, to have people perceive us that way, to want more of us and want us more deeply in processes at an earlier stage. We want to be the right size, the right shape, to be appropriately diverse in our composition.’
Maybe that seat on the group’s management committee will help. Price talks up its importance, and the fact the company chose to head down that path with his appointment, rather than it being something he demanded. He sees it as key in taking his team’s input to important strategic discussions within the wider business. Anglo American will never be run by lawyers – ‘it shouldn’t be’ – but equally it is crucial they have a say.
‘We’ve got to have a seat at the table. It’s critical in a modern environment, a highly-regulated world, where we’re all held to higher legal and ethical standards. We’re in a great organisation that gets the importance of legal, understands the value that legal can have and just wants us to get on with it. That’s a good place to be.’
At a glance Richard Price
- 1988 Associate, McMillan Binch, Toronto
- 1996 Associate and partner, Shearman & Sterling, Toronto
- 1999 Partner, Shearman & Sterling, Singapore
- 2003 Partner, Shearman & Sterling, London
- 2017 General counsel and company secretary, Anglo American
Anglo American– key facts
- Size of team 70
- External legal spend More than £10m a year
- Preferred advisers Shearman & Sterling, Linklaters