Dan Webster – Harrods

The retail group GC talks to The In-House Lawyer about what it takes
to advise one of the world’s most recognised department stores.

The In-House Lawyer (IHL): Start by telling us a little about the beginning of you career in law and how you got the opportunity to work at Harrods.

Dan Webster (DW): I studied law at the London School of Economics and went to law school in Chester. I got a training contract at what is now CMS. I qualified in litigation, stayed a couple of years at CMS and then moved to Dentons. I stayed there for a few years and then decided I wanted a change. To my surprise, an opportunity came up to be an in-house litigator at Harrods where the then owner was famously very litigious. Once at Harrods, I quickly realised that I was meant to be an in-house lawyer and, over time, I’ve evolved into a commercial, corporate, employment, IP all-rounder.

IHL: Could you tell me a little about that change from private practice to in-house law? How did you find that transition?

DW: I was brought in initially as an in-house litigator. It quickly became apparent that there was a demand for more general in-house work and perhaps less than a full-time job available for litigation work. So, I was very happy to broaden my skillset, I wasn’t someone who wanted to stay specialised. I was very happy to become more like a legal equivalent of a GP – if I can make a comparison to the medical profession. The fact that you can kind of turn your mind to most legal tasks, I found that very interesting, and I really enjoyed the variety. Therefore, I really embraced the opportunity to try and be an all-rounder within an in-house practice, as opposed to a specialist litigator.

IHL: What does your role as an ‘all-rounder’ at Harrods entail?

DW: I oversee the legal function for the entire Harrods group. This includes commercial, corporate, IP, marketing and consumer work. I look after all the company secretarial work for the group too. I’m also data protection officer, which is probably quite unusual for a GC. I oversee all the GDPR-related work. I’m also responsible for the trade mark and domain name portfolio.

IHL: Tell me a little about your team and how they assist in the aforementioned work?

DW: I’ve got five lawyers, a contract manager and a paralegal (who we are currently recruiting). In addition to that, I’ve got responsibility for the data protection team, which is currently two professionals. I try to lead by example: by working hard and by having high standards. I tend not to micromanage and let talent flourish. I always seek to be approachable and supportive and to make work enjoyable for my team.

IHL: What is a typical working day like for you?

DW: I’m not sure that there is a typical working day, but this is one of the great things about being an in-house lawyer – it’s not repetitive and it’s unpredictable. You learn to expect the unexpected. You might come into work with a list of tasks you’d like to get done that day, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll actually get through that list without the phone ringing repeatedly with queries and urgent tasks you’ve not anticipated. So, a lack of predictability is something which is a reality of being an in-house lawyer – but also one of the best things about being an in-house lawyer.

IHL: How has your role as a GC changed throughout your time in the industry?

DW: I think the volume of work to be done has grown. There’s much more multi-tasking to do and perhaps a wider appreciation of the GC role and the legal function.

As I mentioned earlier, the legal department at Harrods absorbed the previous company secretary department and I’ve been appointed data protection officer. So, the GC role from my perspective has become broader and more compliance focused. Even aside of my role as data protection officer, the legal work relating to data protection and data security has become a much bigger consideration during my period as a GC.

As I said, the Harrods business has grown, and so has the volume of legal work. There’s also been a shift towards keeping more of the work in-house and towards upskilling, rather than outsourcing. As a result, the legal team which I manage, has grown and all of us have had to become more versatile and more efficient.

I’ve noticed that during my period as a GC here, the legal department is increasingly seen as more of a general value-add, rather than just a legal function. We often take on more of a general role in the business projects we work on, rather than being limited simply to providing legal advice.

Being a GC is hard work and I don’t think it’s the easy option, when compared to private practice, if it ever was.

IHL: Tell me about how you’re planning to use technology in your field?

DW: Another thing that’s sort of changed, is that we now have more of a focus on technology. Indeed, at Harrods, we’re currently trialling a contract management tool. It’s very early stages, but one of the contracts which we use repeatedly is a concession contract: we have many, many companies that operate concessions – effectively shop-in-shops – in Harrods, and it’s a complicated commercial arrangement. We have a fairly long concession contract. So, we are trialling technology which allows us to populate a precedent concession contract based on various different options, depending on the specific commercial deal you’ve struck on with a concession. The idea is that it will save us a lot of time and provide greater efficiency. But, as I’ve said, it’s quite a complicated agreement to do through a contract management tool. We are in the early stages, so it would be much too early to say whether it is a success or not.

IHL: Could you tell me a little more about the work you do concerning trade marking?

DW: Well, Harrods has around 700 trade marks throughout the world. We need to protect our brand which obviously is very valuable. It’s one of the most famous brands out there and definitely one of the most famous retail brands in the world. The trade mark acts as a deterrent to other organisations using our brand without our permission. It also means that if someone does try and use our brand without our permission, we’re able to enforce our trade mark to stop this infringement.

IHL: You spoke about your role within data protection, tell me about that?

DW: Companies the size of Harrods are required to appoint a data protection officer, and I took on that role for Harrods. I was appointed in the period before GDPR came into force. Therefore, I was involved in helping to manage the GDPR compliance project along with a data protection team. I am now responsible for the ongoing GDPR-compliant operation of the Harrods organisation – assisted by the data protection team and plenty of other people within the Harrods organisation.

IHL: Going off the back of that, is compliance a challenge for you and your team?

DW: I’ve talked about the company secretarial role and those challenges, but, we’ve got additional regulation in other areas as well. We have annual reporting obligations required by the Modern Slavery Act, and since 2019, we’ve got governance reporting obligations courtesy of the Companies (Miscellaneous Reporting) Regulations 2018. We’re also helping to prepare Harrods for the imminent introduction of IR35 which will impact on private companies who instruct consultants. As GC, I also attend the annual audit committee meeting and work closely with our internal audit and anti-money laundering team. Overall, there’s quite a lot of compliance work involved in my role, and that of the wider legal team.

IHL: What are the current challenges you face at Harrods at the moment?

DW: The business never sleeps, so it’s genuinely a constant challenge – but, I wouldn’t have it any other way. The work-life balance can be an issue, but it focusses you to be efficient in the way that you work.

As well as business as usual, there’s always one or more major project to work on. At the moment, we’ve got a store-wide refurbishment project; we’ve been collaborating with Farfetch.com in relation to the new Harrods.com website; and we have two new business we are trialling away from the store: H Café and H Beauty.

Two years ago, one of the projects concerned divesting ourselves of four non-retail subsidiaries. All of these deals were being worked on simultaneously and in fact all of them completed around Christmas 2017, which was a memorable juggling act.

IHL: What is in the pipeline for Harrods?

DW: We’re nearing the last stages of the store refurbishment project, we’ve recently reopened our food halls and a state of the art new beauty room. We’re revamping our chocolate room very shortly. We’re re-platforming the Harrods.com website which will be launching early this year. We’re trialling an H Café concept in Henley, which is both a café and a click-and-collect location, with changing rooms upstairs. We’ll be opening two H Beauty shops this year, this is a very exciting new beauty concept and effectively a new brand which we’re building from scratch.

IHL: What have been the high points while working at Harrods?

DW: I’ve been very lucky to work here during a period of rapid change, which has bought Harrods success and growth. Throughout this period there’s been drive, ambition and innovation. I’ve been very fortunate to be in the organisation at this time. Some recent highlights include the projects I’ve mentioned earlier. But another high point is my current team – I’m very lucky to have such talented and dedicated colleagues.

IHL: If you could go back in time, when you were starting off your career in law, what would you tell yourself?

DW: I’d say try and get an in-house secondment as a trainee or junior solicitor. This will give you an early insight into both sides of the legal profession: private practice and in-house. This will help you plot your career path and give you a valuable insight into how businesses really work.