‘I do employment law because I love personalities and people, whether they are friend or foe. You can learn from that.’ So speaks Chris Thomas, senior legal director at Brewin Dolphin, who was recognised as an in-house Rising Star at the Legal Business Awards 2021.
However, it wasn’t the law that first captured his interest and love for challenging characters: ‘I read politics at university and absolutely loved it. I still find it extremely interesting and, as the current state of affairs shows, it’s not exactly a boring time for politics now!’
After gaining work experience in public policy roles and speaking with contacts in his network, Thomas came to the conclusion that a career in politics was not for him. He muses: ‘The wannabe career politicians around me seemed like they needed a bit of life experience. I wanted that real world experience and, for me, law ticked that box.’
Thomas then completed a conversion course and the LPC, quickly securing a training contract at the firm then known as Field Fisher Waterhouse, off the back of a vacation scheme. As an individual eager to get a diversity of experience under his belt, the firm’s six-seat training programme and broad practice offerings suited him down to the ground: ‘I think certainly at the junior end of being a lawyer, a breadth of experiences is really, really important because, frankly, if you know exactly what you want to do too early on, you probably haven’t broadened your horizons enough.’
During his training contract he also embraced pro bono work, finding it another route through which he could continue to engage with diverse groups of people: ‘When I was a trainee, one of my supervisors at Field Fisher volunteered at the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) once a month. I shadowed him a few times and I’ve basically done that ever since – whether for the CAB or other legal clinics – throughout my career.’
While he concedes that this kind of work requires much patience, he sees immense value in explaining to clients how legal structures apply to their complex and emotive situations: ‘These are very difficult and sometimes hopeless cases where people are really down on their luck, but I think it’s really important they should have access to someone to help them navigate the process with empathy. It also makes you a better lawyer to have to apply and explain the law in a completely different way to how you would in your everyday practice. Now, I always encourage juniors to do pro bono work.’
After spending four-month stints in Field Fisher’s employment, litigation, professional regulation, technology and competition teams, he returned to employment for his final seat, where he stayed on qualification in 2009. Thomas credits his enjoyment of the work, which he describes as encompassing ‘a virtuous triangle’ of advisory, litigation and transactional, as the driver to qualify into employment law. It was also a fortuitous decision for a solicitor qualifying at the time of the global financial crisis.
‘For most people it was bad timing, but luckily for me I was choosing employment and there was always going to be a need for employment lawyers, recessionary times included,’ he says.
After three years as an associate at Field Fisher, the phone started ringing with opportunities, and an ambitious Thomas was lured by Travers Smith’s impressive array of clients, including through its private equity and corporate teams: ‘It is a dream for an employment practice. After you do the work buying or selling that business, the transactional work ends but hopefully you can stick with that client for the advisory. When you’ve been there at the coalface of the transaction, you really build good relationships with the people.’
With joining Travers in 2012 and acting for ‘bigger and sexier clients’ inevitably came new challenges and opportunities: ‘It was the busiest and most demanding time of my career. It was my longest hours and my hardest working but equally I think that stretched me the most in my development as a lawyer.’
Thomas reflects that this would become pivotal in his career: ‘One thing I’m really grateful for now from my time in private practice is the client care skills I developed, because now I have two and a half thousand people in my business that are all my clients. These kinds of skills are extremely valuable and very transposable to in-house.’
Three years into his tenure at Travers, Thomas had the opportunity to go in-house on a two-month secondment to Brewin Dolphin – which turned into a seven-month stint at the British wealth management firm: ‘It came at the stage when often a private practice lawyer is tempted to go in-house, so it was an excellent opportunity to try before you buy,’ he explains.
Needless to say, Thomas’ suspicions that he preferred in-house to private practice were confirmed: ‘Working in private practice you give your advice but often that is kind of the end of it, unless the client wants further help implementing it. Whereas in-house, every piece of advice is a bit of a project in its own right.’
The self-confessed lover of regulations knew a listed financial services firm would be a good fit for him and, after casting around the market, he realised that Brewin Dolphin ticked several boxes that larger companies did not: ‘As a lawyer in a smaller listed entity, you have unrivalled access to the senior stakeholders. I directly advise our executive committee and board, whereas when I speak to my peers in larger firms they simply don’t have that access.’
Joining Brewin Dolphin’s in-house team in 2017, Thomas’ first challenge would be getting to know the business: ‘Sadly I didn’t know the wealth management world as a client, but I had to get to know it pretty quickly.’
His love of meeting new people and personalities paid off in that respect: ‘The only way to do that is every time you have a meeting with somebody you’ve not met before is to spend the first ten minutes talking about them: “Hello, nice to meet you. What do you do? Tell me about your job?” Getting into the nitty-gritty and underneath the skin of different roles during those conversations is immensely helpful.’
Thomas also found himself facing the challenge of adapting to perceptions of in-house lawyers: ‘It’s a relatively common perception that in-house lawyers do not make the business money but cost money instead, but I do not agree with that at all. What good in-house legal teams do is of course stop the business losing money through good advice and also become part of the commercial strategy, so that when a commercial team has an idea that is going to grow the business from a wealth management perspective, we are in those meetings at the coalface, adding our experience and helping that effort.’
In one of his first projects at Brewin Dolphin, Thomas flexed his proactivity by overhauling its suite of people-related documentation and processes. ‘Brewin is amazing but when I arrived I realised some of their processes, templates and memos needed a refresh, so it was a really good opportunity to come in with a fresh pair of eyes and be like: “Right, that’s been great, but let’s take stock and start again”’.
In 2019, Thomas also played a pivotal role in helping to facilitate the firm’s €44m acquisition, and resulting integration, of the wealth management arm of Investec Wealth in Ireland.
More recently, like most companies, Brewin Dolphin has been responding to the impacts of the pandemic. While the firm was already accustomed to agile working, the legal team faced a plethora of employment challenges: ‘Due to the impact of the pandemic there has been more new employment law in the last two years than in the last 50 years, frankly. We didn’t have to use furlough, but there were heavy demands for advice from the legal team around the ever-changing rules on self-isolation and social distancing in the workplace, rolling holiday, remote working, IT and security considerations and a number of people wanting to work abroad.’
These challenges were compounded by trying to balance competing interests: ‘Some people were chomping at the bit wanting to get back to the office and meet clients, then on the other side we had some people much more hesitant based on their own physical or mental health needs or fears for someone they live with,’ Thomas explains.
Another recent challenge specific to the financial services sector is the increase in new regulation. Thomas points to the Senior Managers and Certification Regime (SMCR) as particularly significant, with a focus on deterring personal misconduct: ‘It’s still a relatively new area of regulation for financial services firms, so everyone is finding their way.’
He sees the biggest challenge for regulated businesses as interpreting what is ‘market’ when giving advice: ‘In a listed regulated business like ours, you want your advice to be in the middle of the pack. You don’t want to be too aggressive here or a pushover there, so whatever piece of advice it is, you want to be bang in the middle.’ Aside from M&A transactions and rare pieces of large litigation, this is one of the few areas of advice for which the firm looks to external legal counsel.
In law firm partners, Thomas looks for responsiveness and pithy emails: ‘The dream for me is that I get the advice from an external lawyer, and I can just forward it straight out to the business. I also like a partner who delegates properly. Firstly, because it’s cheaper for me, and secondly, it shows me that they care about their team. I want to work with lawyers who develop their juniors and are not just about the bottom line.’
But the vast majority of Brewin Dolphin’s legal work stays in-house. ‘Frankly, we’ve got that breadth, so we hold onto 80-90% of the work and service our needs in-house.’
The team mirrors the classic in-house model, a ‘wide pyramid’, and encompasses two branches: the commercial contracts team and the advisory part; the latter which Thomas leads. The eight-person team benefits from having chief legal officer Alissa Foale (who has been at the firm for 14 years) at the helm: ‘She knows the business back to front,’ says Thomas.
During his five years at Brewin Dolphin, Thomas has progressed from the sole employment counsel to senior legal director and deputy to the chief legal officer. His impact at the firm was recognised at the 2021 Legal Business Awards where he won the Rising Star In-House Counsel category.
Though not one to shy away from a challenge, having taken on his fourth home renovation and development project during the pandemic, Thomas admits he is happy to be watching from the side-lines when it comes to politics. Besides, with 2,500 clients, plus pro bono work and a young family, he has plenty of people and personalities to keep him entertained!
At a glance – Chris Thomas
2007 Trainee solicitor, Field Fisher Waterhouse
2009 Solicitor (employment, regulatory), Field Fisher Waterhouse
2012 Senior associate solicitor, Travers Smith
2017 Senior lawyer (employment/HR), Brewin Dolphin
2021 Senior legal director, Brewin Dolphin
Brewin Dolphin – key facts
Size of team Eight
External legal spend up to roughly £500,000 a year
Preferred advisers Travers Smith, Simmons & Simmons, Arthur Cox, McCann FitzGerald