Perspectives: Geoffrey Timms

Geoffrey Timms, RBSI’ve been lucky. I didn’t always want to be a lawyer. I used to party a lot; I liked going out. I always have done. In my twenties my girlfriend suggested I do something with my life instead of faffing around. She binned me.

Brideshead Revisited was on TV at the time and I thought it might be a good idea to go to university. I was living in Southampton, and unbelievably I found a great teacher and went to night school. He specialised in giving people second chances.

I did three A-levels, got a full grant and went to university. I appreciate how people just can’t do that now.

Politics was quite radical in the mid-1980s. I thought about going into legal aid practice, but when I got to law school I saw these articles about Slaughter and May and Linklaters, and saw how much they were earning, capitalism won.

I applied to Clifford Chance [CC]. Jeremy Carver hired me – we talked about cricket a lot. You had one interview then. It was a different time.

I joined in 1987 when the Clifford Turner/Coward Chance merger happened. I was there alongside Matthew Layton. The money was great, the camaraderie was fantastic. I look back on it very fondly.

I was a litigator, which I always enjoyed doing. I went to Clyde & Co after CC. I got into increasingly large cases, only these cases would go on for several years. I like being in control of my own stuff. I’ve always been a fixer, a negotiator – that’s the skill I’ve got.

With smaller matters, things get done. I saw in-house as an opportunity to do that. Legal & General only had about three in-house lawyers when I joined.

I did a great deal on our previous building – the Walbrook site at Queen Victoria Street – which we sold at the top of the market in 2007 to a company that realised it shouldn’t have bought it. It tried everything to avoid completing the deal. We tried everything to stop them. There was a deal to be done so we had to show strength and not back down. In the end we allowed the other company to walk away, but we got 65% of the money and our building back. And then we sold it again. That took about two years. There were myriad negotiations – a game of chess. We sold it to Bloomberg in the end and the return to the policyholders was nearly 200% of the value of the property: £700m.

I thought about doing legal aid, but when I saw articles about what Slaughter and May and Linklaters were earning, capitalism won.

My worst day in the office was when the share price fell to 21p in 2009. We lost two thirds of our value in a week. I’m the company secretary and the link to the non-execs on the board, keeping them informed about what’s happening. Sometimes you’re just mesmerised by a screen that just shows a sea of red and this time you didn’t know what would happen. Other organisations were failing. It was pretty bad.

There’s always the temptation to do rather than not do in a crisis. As with what happened over Watergate for Nixon, the problem is not so much the incident, it’s the cover-up. The most important thing is to keep calm, keep steady and just wait for events to unfurl. Sometimes you can make matters worse by leaping in.

Step back and think about things. In the digital world where information travels so quickly, that gets lost. In the old days it was a phone call or a telex or a fax. Now information is lightning fast. When bad stuff happens, it gets magnified so much. L&G has a good name; it walks the walk and stands for its values. You see what happens to other organisations when their name starts being questioned.

What am I most proud of? We had our first company challenge to the Financial Conduct Authority in a tribunal. It went on for several years. What gets lost is we managed to resolve the vast majority of the issues. Some things you couldn’t, but having a matter to manage for that amount of time was [a] great responsibility.

I’m the fixer. They are not intellectual issues but rather dealing with problems or negotiating, whether it’s with companies or stakeholders – stuff that for whatever reason has reached a road block. I try and find a way around it. It’s about understanding what the basic issues are.

Sometimes people just don’t understand what each side really wants. Sometimes it’s just about listening to people. I always joke to the team that I know more about getting into the Blitz nightclub 35 years ago than I ever did about getting into law school. How do you persuade someone at the door that they should let you into an exclusive club when you’re some non-entity? Those skills often apply to other situations. Ultimately you’re always dealing with individuals, and figuring out what they want and don’t want.

To really count you have to be on the board. The way people view you internally does matter. If the board doesn’t want to hear from the chief lawyer, then there’s a question as to how much they are valued.

I have a great team who deal with our panel of five firms. I have regular catch-ups with managing partners. I still tend to handle the major litigation; I keep that to myself. I have used Richard Slaven at Pinsent Masons for many years. He has great judgement. People can be quite formulaic, but he will never accept anything on face value and is a fearsomely good negotiator. A good litigator makes you feel as though they’re taking on your problems.

A good litigator will always know how to put themselves in the other person’s position. You have to realise you will have several bad days and not panic about them. In negotiations, people always think they have to take the offer in case people walk away. People never walk away. I once walked out on a meeting – do it politely, always – thinking: ‘That’s the lot. Take it or leave it.’ They left it, even though they would have paid more. But then I got stopped at reception. They came down and accepted.

You also have to be a good loser if you go to court. We haven’t been involved in big stuff often and we haven’t lost yet. But you have to be prepared for it and accept the outcome.

My generation have tended to go into major GC roles and stayed on. The next generation will make the leap to chief executives.

I’ve known Kirsty Cooper at Aviva a long time and I like her a lot. She’s been through a range of issues – anyone with a company secretarial role is also the lynchpin between execs and non-execs. Philip Bramwell and Rosemary Martin have set the bar for being great role models.

When I look at my team the section heads are predominantly women. I would be disappointed if a man succeeded me because the brightest and best have tended to be female. However, I suspect it’s still 60/70% male in the FTSE 100 at general counsel level.

What worries me about the L&G team is how hard they work. When I went in-house it was seen as a soft option. It’s never seen as that now. They might not do the same level of hours as private practice, but the responsibility and working weekends is relentless.

I got married recently and have a young child, so you try to do things in moderation. That’s something I’ve learned as I got older: you have to look after yourself and retain a sense of balance.

Music keeps me busy in my spare time. The great thing about Legal
& General is work is important, very important, but family comes first. They support the idea you can have interests outside work. I’m in a band called Norwegian Blue. It’s a changing collection of people I’ve met through the years, partly through people I met in music school when I attended part-time and partly people who have advertised on Gumtree. We’re setting up pub gigs at the moment in south London.

I like it here at L&G. Nigel [Wilson] is a fantastic CEO. When it’s time for someone better than me to sit here, I can see myself in non-executive roles – certainly not private practice. Maybe I’ll go back to college and do a music degree.

My generation have tended to become general counsel. I’ve done this role for 17 years. My generation have tended to go into major GC roles and stayed on – Philip [Bramwell] and Dan [Fitz] have been around for years. The next generation will make the leap to chief executives. The accountants made the move across the wider business before we did. The calibre of people we’ve got… the company recognises we’ve got the talent to do it.

The more you can be yourself the better – if you can’t be authentic, you can’t convince anyone else to be.

Geoffrey Timms is group general counsel and company secretary for Legal & General