INTERVIEW: KEITH RUDDOCK
FORMER GENERAL COUNSEL AND COMPANY SECRETARY, THE WEIR GROUP
Keith Ruddock retired at the end of 2015 after an in-house career that spanned over 23 years – first at Shell, and then at global engineering company The Weir Group. GC chats to him about his career journey, and thoughts on in-house life.
G C I N T E R V I E W
EDITOR AND FEATURES WRITER
CW: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Keith Ruddock (KR): To be truthful, my first love was, and is, history – I originally wanted to study history at university. I decided quite late in the day before I started university that the law was probably a more sensible course to take. But I always felt a bit guilty that I hadn’t followed my true love and, in retrospect, knowing now that actually you can swap over after a first degree relatively easily, in a way I sort of regret that I didn’t follow the history degree course further.
But I’ve no regrets about being a lawyer. As a career, it has provided me with a lot of interest over the years and a lot of challenge. My plan was to be a family lawyer, but during my articles [training contract] I realised how intensely stressful that is. As a trainee I had some encounters which were just very difficult, especially when it came to child custody disputes, and I thought, ‘I’m probably too emotionally involved to be helpful here.’ I think that you need to be able to preserve some detachment to be effective, and I felt I wasn’t able to do that.
I actually found that I enjoyed the corporate/commercial role much more. I believe it is still fundamentally about people, and I get a lot of energy from dealing with people whom I respect and enjoy.
CW: How did you end up going in-house, to Shell?
KR: The law firm I trained with had a scheme where they seconded trainees into Shell or ICI, and I was seconded into ICI for six months. Not long after qualifying, I was then seconded to Norwich Union. I enjoyed both of those roles very much.
Later on in my time at that law firm, there were starting to be some discussions around partnership, and that really made me sit back and think: is that what I really want? As a partner, your value to the firm is very much in generating new work, but it’s also in being a real in-depth specialist in a specific area. Being in-house, although there are some areas where people develop true expertise, equally there are others where you actually develop a more general role.
I’d applied for a different in-house job entirely, not at Shell, at another company, and the headhunting company said, ‘we think you might be interested in being considered for a role in Shell.’ The more I delved into Shell, the more I liked it as an organisation. The quality of the lawyers there and the legal organisation was, and is, second to one, and the sort of issues that they had to deal with were fascinating. In the oil industry you’re always dealing with matters that are quite significant, whether they be economic, political, social, environmental, or purely business matters.
One of the other things that attracted me to Shell was that they moved you around from position to position every three or so years, and I really enjoyed that. I liked the experience of getting very different insights into different areas and then being able to take that forward into how you advise the business. It meant that you got a tremendous understanding of how the business worked, and it also helped you to be very adaptable and flexible in how you approached your work.
CW: After 20 years at Shell, what made you seek a change of scene and move to Weir Group?
KR: Because of changes at the senior level, it was difficult to see a way to progress further within Shell. When I left, I was Shell’s general counsel for its international Upstream business. Although I enjoyed Shell very much, and I loved the people there, it was also partly the opportunity to test myself as a general counsel in a FTSE 100 company, even though it was a different skill, and a different type of company. I was living in Holland, I’d been there for 6 years, and my wife and I were also keen to get back to the UK.
CW: What have been the highlights of your career?
KR: I’ve been very fortunate in that I’ve been able to spend time in some very interesting countries, some interesting environments, some of them very challenging.
An achievement, I believe, has been to move from being a pure lawyer to being somebody who has hopefully been valued for their contribution in addition to the purely legal; to be able to offer advice in the wider context. Particularly as I became more senior at Shell, a great deal of my role was around reputational management. Most companies can afford to take a lot of financial exposure, but what can really cripple them is a major reputational issue.
I think the thing I’m probably proudest of happened in the context of a major project that Shell was involved with in Ireland called the Corrib project. I wasn’t involved in it at the outset, but when it was first being set up, it encountered lots of issues with the local community and local stakeholders in Ireland, and it fell into all sorts of problems and difficulties. I asked to become involved in that project to see if I could help, as someone from Ireland who could perhaps offer some insight and perspective. I was really pleased to be able to get involved and contribute both to Shell and, I believe, to Ireland.
I think lawyers shouldn’t be shy about taking on those sorts of roles beyond the purely legal. Lawyers are very well suited, actually, to those sort of roles, and we don’t always give ourselves credit for that. I sometimes think that lawyers can be the most ‘human’ people in the room. Business people can be very project-focused and results-oriented, whereas lawyers are very good at taking the wider perspective and expressing their opinions, because that’s their training. They don’t just accept authority and defer to someone who’s more senior for the sake of it.
Another project was an organisation called the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative [EITI]. That is a fascinating body, which is a multi-stakeholder global initiative comprising governments, NGOs, civil society and industry. The idea behind it is to increase transparency in the mining and oil and gas sectors. I was a member of the board of the EITI as a representative director on behalf of the European oil companies. I thought that was tremendous, because it’s a very rare organisation where you get the opportunity to interact with governments and civil society in a context where everybody is trying to progress the same objective. In our society generally, trust in industry and business is so low that to be part of an organisation that is trying to address it was well worth the effort and, hopefully, we were able to build up trust between some of the NGOs and some of the governments and industry.
I would also like to mention the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, which I have been involved with now for a number of years. It exists to promote the rule of law worldwide, which I believe is an objective that all lawyers should fully support. I think many of us start our careers with that concept at the forefront of our minds but we can become distracted from it when we become absorbed in our careers. However, when you have operated in countries where the observance of the rule of law is tenuous at best, the fundamental importance of reinforcing the concept becomes very clear.
CW: What have been the biggest learning points over the course of your career?
KR: You can be the best technical lawyer, you can be absolutely right in terms of your advice, but if you’re not able to convey that advice in a way that is going to have impact, which is intelligible and readily digestible by your client or your business colleagues, then you’re really selling yourself short. It’s very important to establish that relationship of trust with your client where they feel that you are absolutely alongside with them, engaged with them, and you really want them to achieve the best outcome.
We all recognise that the law is there to provide the framework, and absolutely everybody has to operate within that. But it’s very rarely enough to just say to a client or business colleague: ‘You simply can’t do this’. Very often the answer is: ‘You can’t do it this way, but here’s a way that I think will achieve the same outcome, that you should try.’ If you’ve built up a level of trust, on those occasions where you do have to say no, that will be respected and accepted much more than being seen as always taking the conservative and, arguably, easy option of just saying no.
Another thing is the importance of helping your business clients to protect their reputation. That really is so fundamental nowadays, and it’s an area where lawyers can really help. So much of what we do is risk management, and reputational risk is a very big part of that.
I have another reflection that may be a bit more controversial. Technology brings so many benefits, but I sometimes wonder: do we occasionally lose sight of the fundamentals of our legal training and our advice? If you were to set a new (or even a not-so-new) lawyer the challenge of drafting an agreement from scratch, without reference to a precedent, could they do that today? I’ve come across some very longstanding, significant agreements that were drafted perhaps in the 1960s, the 1940s, or even the 1930s, that may have only run to nine or ten pages, but were beautifully crafted and they still work perfectly. There are moves towards more commoditisation of legal advice and, in a way, as a profession we are playing into that, because we are using precedents so much that it’s almost as though the non-legal world asks: couldn’t anyone just fill in the blanks? I think it’s sometimes worth stepping back and asking: have we moved too far in that direction and perhaps lost some of those specific skills? Do we really think through what we are saying, or do we focus on speed of document turnaround instead?
The other reflection that, as a profession, I think we need to think very seriously about is that even when I was training 30 years ago there was a majority of women in my law class. I am very surprised that there are not more senior women in the profession now. It’s getting better (I think), but it’s going very slowly. Simple demographics by themselves are not acting to address the imbalance as I had thought they would. It would be good to step back and ask ‘why’? What are the barriers, whether intentional or unconscious, that we are creating or feeding that are preventing a much more natural mix right the way throughout the profession, not just in gender but also in ethnicity? We should be able to do much better at that.
CW: Do you think that it’s more important than it was at the beginning of your career to show innovation in a business context?
KR: Yes, I think it is. I think that the legal profession will change enormously in the next 30 years, even the next five or ten years.
We still have a very traditional cost model, and I think it’s objectively very difficult to justify and that law firms and their clients need to have a whole different type of conversation about how fees are charged. The hourly rate can drive some very unfortunate behaviour at times, and that just does not work well if you’re trying to build a long-term relationship. I don’t have a magic solution; I don’t think there’s a perfect model. But I do think it’s important to have a relationship between adviser and client where both can feel very open about having that discussion. In every client relationship you need to build up that level of trust so that if there are issues over costs they can be discussed in a mature, adult way.
The good thing for law firms is that most general counsel have come from private practice, so they understand the issues and the pressures that the private practice law firms are under. Equally, I think that sometimes private practice laws firms don’t fully understand some of the pressures that the in-house lawyers are genuinely under to manage their budgets and to be accountable to management in the company. Fixed fee, capped fees, retainer-type bases – I know these things are used but I think that’s an area where the profession needs to move ahead.
It may be that firms even need to look at the model of the law firm partnership, because a lot of the billing model is driven by partnership needs, to make sure the partners are being appropriately remunerated. When the financial crisis first hit, I got the impression that a lot of law firms took the view of: how do we preserve our partnership drawings? Maybe that’s a bit cynical. But you somehow felt that actually they were refusing calls to take action to protect their income, whereas there were a couple of firms I was working with at the time that took a much more long-term perspective. They took the view that said, ‘look, we know we’re going to have a long period here where it’s going to be very tough, so what really matters to us is how do we maintain the relationship going forward and can we work on jointly developing a model that enables us to continue to work for you? We recognise that we will take a hit on our costs, but we’d like to continue to be working for you when this is over.’ To me that’s a much more constructive, creative and business-like discussion, which I think was to their credit.