Shortly after completing the Legal Practice Course, Sarah Holford was looking for somewhere to kick-start her career. An opportunity presented itself at Games Workshop, the British manufacturer of miniature war games, with space-themed Warhammer 40,000 among its best-known products.
‘I’m not a hobbyist but I am a big sci-fi and fantasy geek, so I knew of them. When I saw the role, I thought “yeah, I can go for this,”’ Sarah reminisces. ‘I have a lot of friends that are into Warhammer, gaming and Dungeons & Dragons, so seeing the role I knew it would be a cool place to work.’
Interpretations of ‘cool’ may vary, but it is hard to argue with the on-site medieval-themed bar, gaming hall and museum. Holford is generous with praise when recalling her time at Games Workshop, describing it as a fundamental building block of her career. ‘Because you’re working among hobbyists, everyone is so passionate and desperately wants to do a good job. It made the atmosphere and the ethos of the company phenomenal. You are pulled into this way of working that is really people-focused.’
Holford’s experience at Games Workshop saw her work closely with the China-Britain Business Council to pro-actively enforce IP rights in various jurisdictions. Fake miniatures from China were a common obstacle. It was also there where Holford encountered an influential professional role model in Ross Matthews, who is now Games Workshop’s general counsel and company secretary. ‘He would spend half a day, a day or even a week with the paralegals going through key points from the week, interesting issues or how he wanted us to approach things,’ she recalls. ‘Shout out to Ross Matthews, he was amazing.’
For the ambitious Holford, a move into private practice beckoned in order for her to qualify as a solicitor. After just over a year at Games Workshop, she moved to Geldards, cutting her teeth as a trainee in the dispute resolution team for a year before qualifying in 2017. Her tenure in private practice was largely coloured by intense medical device product liability defendant work, regularly appearing in coroner’s courts as well as the Royal Courts of Justice. She recalls: ‘I remember stepping into the Royal Courts of Justice for the first time and feeling like I’d stepped into Hogwarts! I couldn’t believe I was working there!’
A formative case was the DePuy Pinnacle metal-on-metal hip litigation, which was as psychologically draining as it was complex. More than 300 claimants argued as part of a group litigation order that DePuy’s hip implant released metal debris into surrounding tissue, causing health complications. In 2018, the High Court found in favour of DePuy.
Holford relives the emotional toll: ‘It was interesting but it’s hard to sit there with the families and work out what’s happened. To be giving evidence for a defendant in those circumstances is difficult.’
And because of the group litigation order, there was a monotony to the work too: ‘A lot of the cases were the same arguments and causation factors. You’re looking at various pieces of medical evidence for 100+ claimants. There’s only so many times you can look at a hip report and feel OK about it. I could replace a hip myself now, no problem!’
After nearly eight months of relentless work on the case, Holford decided she was ‘quite happy to sit and work in an office’, but also wanted a faster-paced working environment. An in-house return was on the cards as a legal adviser role was available at truck supplier Scania UK, a position Holford assumed in 2017.
She quickly moved through the ranks and was offered the head of legal role after just two years – only two years’ post-qualification. Holford turned to her old mentor Matthews for advice: ‘When I was looking at taking the job at Scania, it was Ross that I called and he told me to go for it. I was pretty junior when I became GC. I said to Ross: “I don’t think I’m experienced enough for this! Have you got any insight?” He said: “You can be the best lawyer in the world, but if you’re not reducing risk, if people aren’t coming to you, you’re no doing your job. The key factor is engagement, and you can bring it to a business when there was none before.”’
Engagement has certainly characterised Holford’s leadership so far. Since taking the reins, she has set about instigating a cultural change within the business which reaches much wider than the legal and compliance remits she has responsibility for. So successful was she in this pursuit, Holford and her seven-strong legal team were named Most Transformative In-House Team of the Year at the 2021 Legal Business Awards.
A wave of tech was introduced to build bridges with the wider business, Contract AI proving to be a particular revelation: ‘It’s amazing,’ Holford comments. ‘I vaguely knew it existed from my litigation days in terms of disclosure, but I had no idea you could get a robot to analyse a contract and give you a report. It does the job of a lawyer! It can only work with what you have taught it and for purchasing contracts mainly, so if it’s really complex we step in and start having a look. It’s 98% accurate. Introducing that was such a wow factor: an 80-page contract could be back to someone within an hour.’
Holford also introduced a matter management system, which she describes as having had a ‘phenomenal impact’. She says: ‘It meant we could look at where we were spending most of our time, and what efficiencies we could bring in. Until you start measuring, you don’t know what’s out there. You also can’t present to get investment without data.’
The other major lesson that Holford held on to from her early spell at Games Workshop related to recruitment. ‘They hired people for people, they weren’t necessarily bothered about experience or what you did before. So now when I’m hiring in my team I’m looking for the people, I’m not looking for what they’ve done before. That’s particularly important for law, because if you’re passionate about what you do, when you talk to the business you can get them onboard a bit more. Otherwise it’s dry.’
In this sense, she highlights the ambassadorial work of two of her team, paralegal Jasper Blacklock and solicitor Robert Paterson: ‘I knew that whatever happened, that comms piece for the business was being helped by those two, even if they were just having coffee with people. They were out there engaging, putting out the legal name and winning hearts and minds.’
As for the day-to-day legal work, the Scania UK legal team is still feeling the reverberations from a 2017 fine from the European Commission amounting to €880m, as part of the ongoing trucks cartel case. The penalty was imposed as the EC alleges Scania colluded for 14 years with five other truck manufacturers on truck pricing, a ruling that Holford and her team are still appealing.
Otherwise, her team are largely preoccupied with large IT contracts as the wider Scania business undergoes a significant IT transformation. There is also a substantial horizon-scanning element, as the legal team is tasked with keeping abreast with the latest developments in electric and autonomous vehicles.
Holford concedes that her relative inexperience means she often defers to external counsel, of which Dentons, Shoosmiths and Gateley are the chief advisers. However, she is crystal clear on what kind of support she wants: ‘We always focus on getting really clear commercial advice. I don’t want waffle, I don’t need pages and pages. Tell me what I can do, and tell me what I can’t do on a principles basis. No-nonsense, quick, commercial advice.’
Firms that can get this approach right will find a sustainable client in Scania: ‘The advisers we use are becoming long-term partners, because I want somebody who understands how we operate so we can get that quick advice that will be very relevant right now.’
It is also important for Holford that any firms she partners with share her ethos, which she describes as ‘progressive and flexible’. She says fighting to uphold and spread this philosophy across the wider Scania UK business was one of the hardest challenges she has had to face as head of the legal team.
‘People have been there a long time. The amount of times I’d hear “well we’ve always done it this way”. For me to come in as a young person, as a woman, in a male-dominated industry, which is primarily long-term service, where people are generally older, was incredibly tough. There was a lot of tension in 2019, in trying to win people over, and understand how they operated. That was hard and a little bit fractious because we [the legal team] are different. Dressing more casually, bringing coffee to work, spending time in breakout areas… that was a lot for a very old-fashioned business.’
Despite this combative beginning to her time as head of legal, it has yielded results. According to Holford, Scania UK’s insurers have reported a noticeable shift in culture, with people more willing to talk openly about failures and mistakes. As for her own team, Holford reports an ‘open environment’ where ‘everyone is happy to question me on things’. She also credits her legal team with introducing CSR committees and more social events as part of the culture change agenda.
As for unique challenges faced by a legal chief in her industry, Holford offers: ‘The reluctance to change, but the acceptance that change is going to happen. There is very much a feeling everything is coming to a head with technology and regulatory changes as well as a cultural shift with millennials in the workplace.’
And it seems that at the very least Scania UK’s legal function will be at the frontline of change. Holford concludes: ‘Our team vision is “opening the door to today’s legal landscape”. Helping people to understand we’re there as a help function and be business-partnered.
You don’t want to be the person shouting from the sidelines while the game is going on, you want to be on the pitch playing with everyone. That’s the only way you’re going to get change.’
At a glance – Sarah Holford
2013 Paralegal, Games Workshop
2014 Paralegal, trainee and solicitor, Geldards
2017 Legal adviser, Scania UK
2019 Head of legal and compliance, Scania UK
Scania UK – key facts
Size of team Seven
External legal spend Between £200k and £250k for BAU
Preferred advisers Dentons, Gateley, Shoosmiths