Perspectives: Philip Bramwell, BAE Systems

I’m of an age where I form part of a group of lawyers who elected to pursue careers in-house from the outside. I had failed to complete a chemical engineering course so I had a very clear purpose in studying law: I wanted to work in-house. I identified a couple of industries I thought should grow so I might surf that wave.

I started out in pharma in the late ‘70s, which was immensely enjoyable. I grew a love of complex businesses – global, multinational businesses. They provide rich opportunities for lawyers in a variety of areas – commercial, corporate, M&A. That is the theme I followed throughout my career.

I went from pharmaceuticals into the very early days of mobile communications. My dear mother said: ‘What are you doing?! People will always be ill but nobody will be rude enough to walk around talking on the telephone!’ That’s the sort of insight that caused her to buy my father a Betamax recorder.

Mobile communications for the next 16 years gave me an immense wave to surf on, the adoption of technology which has changed the way people live. Right place, right time…

My time in telecoms ended when we sold O2 to Telefónica in 2006 and led me to the defence business. It’s a global, highly complex business and presents novel legal challenges. Doesn’t get any better than that.

When I came to BAE, the company had a number of regulatory challenges – it was subject to investigations [regarding allegations of corruption in dealings in a number of foreign countries]. We needed to find a way to have constructive conversations and resolve those issues.

I’ve done five major psychological profiles… in year two, you’re wishy washy. Five years later you’re a demon.

The average IQ of the employees here is probably the highest of all the industries I’ve worked in. When they bring their energies to bear on the sorts of challenges we had with regulators early on, you can make good progress. We had tremendous leadership from Sir Richard Olver [BAE’s then chair] at the time.

An early high point was working with Lord Woolf [on a 2008 report into BAE’s ethical standards]. To work with the former Lord Chief Justice is an immense privilege. The sheer practical wisdom made it an extremely enjoyable task that produced a road map which the new leadership under [BAE chief executive] Ian King could take forward.

Here you have an opportunity to work with some of the leading industrialists in the country. We have [BAE chair] Sir Roger Carr, a talented board of directors… they’re a challenging group to serve as a general counsel but always stimulating.

I have work/life balance now, I haven’t always. Years ago with a young family, I lived in Brussels for eight years and I was 90% travelling. For a period my wife was effectively a single parent with young children. I’m fortunate now that I’ve achieved the top job and can choose my hours more carefully… just as the children have left home [laughs].

My interests are distinctly non-cerebral. When I was saving money for law school, I worked on a factory floor at a company that made gearboxes. I’ve always had an immense admiration for people who have practical skills. I love welding and metal work. I have an old Mercedes which never runs smoothly, and a boat. It’s not about fixing it, it’s the taking part.

I never knew who perpetuated the myth that going in-house was an easy option. You are freed from the tyranny of the billable hour but it’s only to be replaced by the tyranny of corporate life and deadlines… and public scrutiny.

As a GC you’ve more opportunities to create flexible work patterns. I’m proud when we have our conference that the audience just looks like a normal cross-section of society.

I’m not prone to following heroes [but] if you are in any way keen on rugby, you cannot fail to be keen on Jonny Wilkinson. It’s not just that glorious drop kick goal, it’s the way he played the game, the selflessness, the modesty. I have great affection for musicians from my era. I have original copies of Life on Mars and Ziggy Stardust in my attic…

I had a brief diversion from law. Having done M&A in the telecoms space for many years, I left my role as GC and started up a strategic consulting division of a telecoms company. It forced me to be financially literate and take responsibility. You will be a better lawyer for that.

Being responsible for performance of a business is something you can’t understand until you’ve experienced it. Being judged by the numbers is tough – there’s no hiding. They’re brutal.

What I hated about consultancy – when you are an in-house lawyer you are part of a decision-making team – a consultant walks into the boardroom, does a massive presentation, and the response at the end is: ‘Okay. Bye.’

In ‘retirement’ I would like to be a non-executive director. The likes of Rupert Bondy at BP, the latest generation of general counsel are really senior business leaders… Dan Fitz [at BT]… they’re not black-letter lawyers, they’re participating in executive decision-making. That’s new for the UK. We’re way behind the US. The US is a generation ahead of us in the development of in-house lawyers.

The worst sins I’ve seen of any legal leader is failure to back their lawyers or allowing politics to infect legal departments. Lawyers can go bad in industry – in fragmented companies, lawyers can move to the dark side of political divisions. That is not a good use of their skill. Your client is the company, not the management. Maintaining such fierce independence can be very uncomfortable for some people.

You learn from every regulatory encounter. I was once briefly detained by a Danish lawyer working on the DG4 dawn raid. When I say detained I was stuck in my office for a while, in a competition law raid. I’d been asked to step aside so a copy could be made of my hard drive and I refused. She said: ‘I’m operating under EU law and you don’t have privilege.’ I said: ‘Well, you’re in the United Kingdom, and here I do.’ I didn’t have to hold out too long but the dawn raid team were there for quite some time. We didn’t offer them any food until they behaved more reasonably. In the end, we sent them pizza and soft drinks. They’d seen too many B movies.

If you’ve got a difficult relationship with a regulator, then you’ve got to try to recover that. As an in-house lawyer you shouldn’t expect to be greeted warmly. Regulators are wary of in-house lawyers, you’re obstacles that remove the shock and awe they wish to create

I’ve worked for 30 years as an in-house lawyer and I’ve yet to encounter an evil executive. There are shrill voices in society that want to see heads on poles – medieval corporate punishment – and you do find in certain parts of the world regulators are very fond of getting executives into orange boiler suits and handcuffs, walking them out into police cars. That’s a stunt.

I’ve done five major psychological profiles… in year two, you’re wishy washy, then five years later you’re a demon. Then five years later you can deploy lots of management capabilities. I was working for an American company and had been promoted. With that came an executive development programme. The run-up to this was filling in a questionnaire. I filled it in on a plane not paying too much attention. I handed it in, which was followed by a very senior executive in a meeting telling me: ‘Congratulations, Mr Bramwell, you’ve scored the highest-ever score for our delegation paralysis form. You don’t trust the people who work for you, the people you work with, and the people you work for. You trust no-one. This is not uncommon in mid-tier lawyers but if you are to become a leader, you will have to learn to delegate and trust.’ That was a low point. I could feel myself sliding down my chair, doing a Johnny English. But lesson learned. To this day I say I am a recovering sufferer of delegation paralysis.

We didn’t offer the dawn raid team any food until they behaved. In the end, we sent them pizza and soft drinks. They’d seen too many B movies.

I like platforms for in-house like Legal Business where we can get together in a four-star hotel and eat rubber chicken and share our experiences. If your sector is going through a gruesome time, you’ll get as close as lawyers are ever going to get to a group hug. I had a lot of compassionate calls from GCs when I came here and the investigations were going on. Of course, there was a thought bubble above their head going: ‘Glad it’s not me.’

I feel for what the newly-appointed GC for Volkswagen is going to go through over the next five years. In many ways though it’s your opportunity in your career for the greatest single value-add.

Multinationals are like very large ships. Imagine 100,000 people on board and you run into a huge regulatory storm – can you lead a team of lawyers to get the company through that storm? There are 100,000 people on board that have nothing to do with the alleged wrongdoing… you’ve added enormous value, you’ve preserved jobs, people’s investments, pensions. It doesn’t get better than that.

I’m very demanding and I don’t apologise for that. I try to create an environment where people can practise law to the highest of standards in a collegiate environment… and enjoy it. I hope I’m a caring boss… you’ll probably get a letters column after you print this.

I hope I’m still alive in five years. And still working. Maybe semi-retired. But I would like to spend more time with my wife and my boat… and finally get that wretched old car working. Apparently it’s too late to be a doctor but archaeology could still be on the table. If I could kneel down in a pile of dirt and unearth a roman pot in five years, I would be so happy.

Career wisdom? Take the time to find something you enjoy so you don’t dread Sunday night. You may stumble across something that is the stuff of dreams.

Philip Bramwell is group general counsel for BAE Systems