‘Frankly, what’s a boardroom compared to a regiment of soldiers?!’ Claire Holdsworth is philosophical about her journey from army officer to motorbike-riding GC of Marathon Asset Management.
Some say getting your foot in the door of a top law firm is often the hardest part for aspiring lawyers, but Holdsworth’s journey to her training contract interview definitely casts that sentiment in a whole new light.
‘I was serving in Bosnia at the time. I had to get an armoured convoy out of Bosnia to Croatia, then get onto a military aircraft to fly me to RAF Brize Norton, then get transport from there to London,’ recalls Holdsworth.
‘I walked into the interview at Hogan Lovells and one of the partners that interviewed me started to ask about what was happening in the press. I had to say: ‘I’m sorry – I’ve not read a newspaper for months.’’
Holdsworth was nearly ten years into her army career when she started to consider her next steps. She had studied a BA in languages and the possibility of a legal career had never been on her radar. However, ambitious and unfazed by the challenge, she decided to give it a go. After all, she’d served in the Gulf War, in Northern Ireland during the conflicts and in the Bosnian War – how hard could it be?
‘I literally just got the books and taught myself law, which was quite challenging. It was in the days when you didn’t really have distance learning as such, it was just big books through the post. I actually took my exams aboard a ship in Croatia when I was about to deploy to Bosnia with the army education training services invigilating.’
Characteristically unassuming about her efforts, Holdsworth jokes that she was only offered the training contract at Hogan Lovells because she was ‘a bit different’. Though she still recognises the benefits of her previous experience: ‘I’ve realised that the legal profession is a great one to come into, no matter what your previous background. If anything, it’s helpful to have had a different career. Being in the army has really helped me – I have never been fazed by any boardroom.’
Not long after training at Hogan Lovells, she was drawn to working in-house during a secondment to Barclays. An early move to the client side saw her joining investment group Credit Lyonnais Securities in 2002, before moving to Odey Asset Management in 2004.
During her time at Odey she came into her own, crediting her experience there with teaching her how to be a good in-house lawyer: ‘The legal side is only one part of it – it’s the ability to know the business really well, learn about the business – and then find solutions to make things happen.’
She offers wisdom for lawyers both in private practice and inhouse: ‘One thing I’ve learnt is if you’ve got something to say, say it quickly. I just write bullet points so it’s quick, sharp and easy to read, rather than the long letters of reply that people fall asleep over.’
At the hedge fund, run by eccentric former City banker Crispin Odey, she learned the value of building networks of trusted external legal advisers to assist with unfamiliar or sensitive questions. During her 17 years, she’s handled it all, from a high-profile #MeToo accusation against Odey to opening international offices in New York, Geneva and Guernsey, to utterly niche issues: ‘I once had to get a gaming license in some state in America because our firm had bought shares in a gaming company and there was a quirky law that meant you couldn’t own shares unless you had one. I remember thinking: ‘Where do I go for this advice?’ There I was in the middle of the night, getting a phone call from a US gaming law expert, who I had never met but who I was put in touch with through the network of law firms I had got to know.’
Since joining Marathon Asset Management in August 2021, she works as part of a lean team of six and continues to benefit from working with some trusted law firm partners. The type of work that goes to external advisers includes specialist advice on funds work and jurisdiction-dependent employment queries: ‘I see a GC as a GP. You know a little bit about everything, but when it comes to getting real expert advice, you go to a law firm.’
Like most GCs, she faces the age-old problem of costs, a challenge only exacerbated by current salary inflation: ‘It’s difficult for law firms as their business model means it is not in their interest to give you quick, cheap advice, but we’re more likely to use the firm if it models itself on that approach. Otherwise, we’re frightened to pick up the phone in case the clock starts ticking.’
Another challenge for asset managers like Marathon is the elevated importance of responsible investing and other ESG considerations. Says Holdsworth: ‘Those are very different factors to consider now and, inevitably, in the next few decades versus what we were being asked by clients 30 years ago. Back then, it was very much – ‘well, how are you going to make money for me? How are you going to invest my pension?’ They weren’t focusing on what your firm was doing about these ESG issues. That’s the big shift and it’s
She is also seeing developments around diversity: ‘The financial services sector is much slower to make changes [than the legal sector], but it’s suddenly becoming more of a focal point because clients who are investing with financial institutions are demanding it. They’re saying: ‘Well, I can choose who I want to put my money with, and I want to choose a firm that is doing well in this area.’
‘There is change afoot. We’ve just appointed the first female board member in the 35-year history of the firm. The opportunities are there, not just for women, but for improving diversity in general.’
And Holdsworth is no stranger to operating in a male-dominated industry: ‘When I was in the army, I was the only woman in my regiment of 800 or 900 men. Financial services is male-dominated, particularly at the higher and executive levels. It’s not an easy place to be as a woman, particularly when you have children and other family commitments. It’s incumbent on all of us to do something personally about it.
‘There’s still a long way to go in terms of recognising that women, when they do have to take a career break to have children, still have a huge role to play. I found that very difficult. I have two children. For the first, I took six months off and the second, only four months. Even then, I still pretty much had to be available.
Sharing a stage with Hillary Clinton at a recent seminar where they were both keynote speakers has been a career highlight. Holdsworth spoke on diversity and inclusion in the workplace and Clinton on women’s rights. For her part, Holdsworth intends to continue to use her position to elevate others: ‘I want to be able to retire knowing that I’ve made a little bit of a difference, even if it’s only a little bit. Because, if we all do a little bit, that will create a lot.’
Aside from driving diversity in the workplace, Holdsworth also takes a keen interest in motorbikes. With a road bike as her main mode of transport, she recently took part in the world’s largest female biker meet.
Always quick to defy stereotypes, she quips: ‘I like shocking people when I turn up to meetings on a motorbike – people always assume you’re on a scooter and I get to go: ‘No, really, it’s an 865cc!’
At a glance – Claire Holdsworth
1989-98 Army officer, British Army
1999-2002 Solicitor, Hogan Lovells
2002-04 Securities and derivatives lawyer, Credit Lyonnais Securities
2004-21 General counsel, Odey Asset Management
2021-present General counsel, Marathon Asset Management
Marathon Asset Management – key facts
Size of team six
Legal spend Between £500k and £2m
Preferred advisers Simmons & Simmons; Maples Group (Cayman); Travers Smith